Tag Archives: Farm Bill

The Consequences of Over-Crowding our Country with Factory Farms

Questions of scale, distribution, and crowding are increasingly central to mapping and data visualizations.  The increasingly troubling geographical crowding of factory farms in the country constitute a cautionary reminder of our shifting relation to the production of food–and the perils not only of concentrating most livestock in inhumanely crowded conditions, but concentrating our farmlands at a physical remove from most populations.

By a perverse twist in the logic of economic conditions, the unprecedented concentration of farmlands at a remove from populations not only changes our food; the ways we to treat food production come with steep environmental costs.  This post teases out some of the consequences of the transformation of agricultural practices, as intensified application of pesticides to produce the huge quantities of grain that enable industrial-scale ‘farming’ with their own costs.   Despite a renewed culture of small farming in select economies, the remove at which factory farms lie from populations have not only changed our relation to food but created after-effects we have only begun to unpack.

Although the mundane nature of our food supply is rarely so explicitly tied with the anthropocene–a topic especially in vogue, but usually comparison with the carbon footprint or petroleum products.  Yet the density of factory farms in America has left inroads in the landscape that seem truly difficult to erase, from the growing number of “food miles” that much meat now travels to processing plants to reach consumers in restaurants and supermarkets, to the damage that technologies of over-fertilization and pesticide-use.  The shifting landscape of farming, or of big agra, creates a dense concentration of farms in the United States–a post-modern geography that is revealed in the disquieting distrubution that Chris Kirk of Slate created in a web-based map that calls to attention the select space in which American farmers/1,000 people lie–a map that implies the growing distance of most farmers from markets of food, and indeed the concentration of areas where farmers constitute a sizable share of the population.

Farmers:100 eah state

Chris Kirk

Even more striking, perhaps, is the limited range of locations where the production of crops retains greatest value.


Crop Value

The consequences of this quite uneven distribution will be increasingly significant.  Indeed, the greatest environment impact of varied foods are most easily measured by the distances food takes to reaching consumers, the growing “food mileage” fostered by factory farms located in landlocked regions of the country are one of the most strikingly inefficient ways of delivering food–and provide one of the best indices of the impact of food on our environment.

32b75d68bd9abbf1986c2474c58c6ee0

Robert A. Rhode (2000)

1. The data visualization of the distribution of factory farms included as the header to this post places in evidence the concentration of factory farms in America.  It tells a story of the changing nature of animal husbandry in a world where markets have become dissociated from agricultural production–and suggests an absence of attention to the origins of most meat, and the redrawing of husbandry, as well as the redrawing of cropland, far from centers of densest inhabitation, where food-miles are further expanded than in any other era of human history–with indelible consequences for the human diet.

For the intensity of the concentration of factory farms in America is emblematic a strange but powerful illustration of economic disequilibria, where expanding farms have rendered independent farming barely profitable, and driven farmers to become technology-happy in their purchase of new tools of pasturing that almost erase the need for pasture.  The business model that has replaced crop rotation, and open fields of pasture, has not erased the differences between the farming of cattle, pigs, and chickens, but dramatically decreased them to create a terribly terrifying sort of man-made experiment that may not be only waiting to occur.

Increasingly, technologies of mass-farming livestock are not only removed from pasturing, but adopted in places increasingly removed from centers of population, and depending on transportation networks of their own to arrive at consumers in their less-than-fresh state.  The turn toward a dense clustering of factory farms offers a fairly terrifying view of the marginalization of the space where pastured animals dwell–and, of course, chickens have it hardest, both given their size and manipulatable conditions.  The remove of current conditions from sustainable roaming and feeding on nutritious grasses may be ironic, given the clustering of factory farms in many areas of the Midwest, but they are particularly torturous to livestock–animals are increasingly raised with limited access to sunlight, fresh air, or open space–and indeed consumers, as such farming techniques increasingly necessitate antibiotics to prevent outbreaks of disease from high-grain diets that are far less healthy for livestock.

The influence of such a concentration of farms seems to leave an increasingly indelible footprint on our environment.  The arrival of increasing anthropogenic agricultural landscapes reflects the growing congestion of farmlands–but in a sense begins from the poor stewardship of the land in which the free market has led to a wholesale promotion of the inhumane and unhealthy crowding of a concentration of over-fertilized farms in the so-called heartland of the midwest, a deep distortion that the recent funding for the Farm Bill perpetuates in ways that make it seem difficult to turn back the page on the density of factory farms in many states–and the consequent degradation of the surrounding lands and the environments that factory farms pollute.  Mapping factory farms is not only about communicating the incredible scale of current-day farming, but the increasingly indelible traces that they leave on the land by their use of broadly cast nitrogen-rich fertilizer, neonicotinoid insecticides and other herbicides, for which farm workers–or handlers of produce–are rarely provided any protection.

And although interactive maps have yet to develop adequate synesthetic models to render the human sense of smell, the concentrations of factory farms demand models of integrating interactive with scratch-and-sniff techniques to adequately indicate the 13.8 billion cubic feet of waste factory farms collectively generate, in greater excess of what the land can absorb or incorporate–at considerable danger to polluting drinking water and air, since factory farms fail to use manure to fertilize in the manner that farms did in the past, as well as one of the greatest sources of the release of methane gas.  Neil Gaiman’s Wednesday recently ruefully remarked “San Francisco isn’t the same country as [the imagined town of] Lakeside anymore than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis,” despite “certain cultural signifiers [like] money, a federal government, entertainment” that perpetuate the illusion of one country like money, television, and McDonald’s.

The area occupied by factory farms suggest something of an actual country within the country, apparently insulated from the population at large, but plays with different rules that stand in increasing danger of contaminating the world from which it appears removed.  For maps suggest significant evidence that the arrival of the anthropocene may lie in the growing disequilibria of ecosystems that have grew up around unnaturally dense concentrations of factory farms.

2. The clustering of factory farms charts an ever-expanding distance between food production and consumption, and a deep re-understanding of man’s relation to the environment.  The alarming scale at which we have come to produce food has entailed a warping of agrarian environments that produce a limited range of foods on ever-increasing scale.  Those pockets of the deepest red–the instinctual signifier of danger–marks an extreme congestion of the landscape with factory farms for livestock and intensive agriculture grown in a scale beyond bulk, whose density carries clear costs.  For with over nine million land animals killed each year in order to produce food for Americans in 2014, factory farms have reached a scale and concentration rarely dreamed of, and the scale of its farming has provoked unfamiliar environmental effects:   the amount of animal manure produced in expanding factory farms in the United States have come to produce the fastest growing source of the greenhouse gas methane in the US since 2007–and as well as producing animal waste, stream harmful quantities of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and particulate matter.  And their geographic concentration by 2012, largely in an areas of cheap land, and landlocked states, removes them from the possibility of any transport save trucking–

2012

Distributions like the above show the concentration of such “factory farms” across the lower forty-eight states as recently as 2012 demand scrutiny as an object-lesson of a post-industrial agrarian age, whose pockets of deep red or crimson sharply contrasting with wan yellow expanses where factory farms are absent from the landscape.

The distribution demands comparison with a more finely grained map showing the declining number of smaller farms. But its totality confronts viewers with the increasing saturation of pockets of the farms cape in such indelible reds to force us to ask not only about the desirability of producing food so intensively in select regions, but to try to investigate the steep consequences, costs and effects of the colonization of the farmscape by radically intensive factory farms, dedicated to cultivating mono-crops on a far greater economy of scale (and subsidization) than was previously imagined possible. The result is to create a farmscape more increasingly removed from consumers.  For the industry of agriculture–either in the form of crops or animal pasturage–contrasts sharply to the very notion of farm stewardship, and indeed is situated at a greater remove from the most densely inhabited land.

2012

Food & Water Watch analysis of U.S. Dept of Agriculture Census of Agriculture Data

Whether or not it is still true that, as Gertrude Stein once said in her Geographical History of America, that “in the United States, there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is,” there are surely a deeper concentration more farms built to “feed” Americans than anywhere else.  By using a range of data visualizations, this post poses questions of how we can best orient ourselves to the increasing crowding of the national farmscape with monocultures that the monopolies of farming Big Agra has introduced.  It then turns to consider the increasingly steep consequences and costs that they pose in our society of laws.

For the drastic dependence on synthetic fertilizers–which now consume a fifth of fossils fuel use, and allow new economies of scale of monocultures releasing farms from a diversity of crops, at the same time that their production was increasingly subsidized, freeing them from the market.  The consolidation and concentration of food-production are enabled by large-scale production freed from sales at the marketplace, doubling of the size of the average farm, while decreasing farms have decreased from 7 million in the 1930s to almost 2 million today, based on an increased ability of production that diminished the nutritional value of produce; animals that are fed almost entirely on a diet of corn produce meat far higher in saturated fats.  The  toxic cocktail of such distorted land-use is complicated even more by the regular release from factory farms of nitrogen and pesticides into the environment posing problems from oxygenic depletion to drastic decreases in local species’ fertility:  the factory farm, liberated from biological constraints of earlier times, has grown to meet radically new economies of scale.

Rather than grow corn, squash, peas, pumpkin, parsnips, carrots or onions, the landscape of the factory farm is focussed on corn–the over-subsidized as the dominant mono-crop grown across the perpetual harvests of over-farmed fertilized lands.

2002 Factory Farm All Map USA

legend factory famrsFactory Farms in the United States, 2002/Food & Water Watch, analysis of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Census of Agriculture Data

By adopts a crude sort of map algebra comparing data visualizations, this post juxtaposes a range of datamaps that raise pressing questions about such steep levels of concentration of factory farms, and the severity the extreme crowding of space by factory farms that is scarily demonstrated in the above data vis.  While they are able to go unnoticed, the proximity of small blue dots that designate “meat plants” in the data vis above seem worthy of special note, both because of the considerable geographical remove of such plants that “feed” much of the nation and the clear bands on which they are situated.  Eyeballing these maps of the colonization of much of the midwest, and a density of farming that places a demand on overwatering–and okverfertilizing–select regions, in ways that put an increased premium on long-distance trucking, unfreeze farm products, and huge storage houses.  The concentration of factory farms for hogs, for example, creates an intensity and crowding that cannot be conceived as healthy–where sows pumped nurse piglets in gestation crates, as breeding machines, before being led to the slaughterhouse.

Hog_confinement_barn_interior

Wikimedia

The concentration of hog farms is abstractly rendered in a map, but their increasing intensity is elegantly communicated to viewers of the several interactive visualizations Food & Water Watch devised from GIS data of USDA agrarian censuses from 2002 to 2012:

hogs 2002

Hogs 2012

Food and Water Watch

For such livestock and poultry factory farms, largely out of public view, are quite aptly characterized as concentration camps for animals, which “aren’t farms at all”, and the dangers of such a segregation of such segregation of factory farms, which aim to ban observation by journalists or observers.  Recent attempts to ban observers from reporting on the practices and conditions in farms run by corporations like Tyson Foods, Smithfield, and Borden–“Ag-Gag” laws–make the mapping of such farms more compelling.  Despite the spate of state legislators seeking to tar the observers of the animal factory as guilty of “an act of terrorism,” their mapping far more necessary. For the mapping of the factory farm and the pesticides and fertilizers they spew provides the best way to embody crises otherwise difficult to comprehend from antibacterial resistance to colony-collapse disorder, which have resulted in a decline of 40-50% of bees at farms in recent years that may be due to the increasing use of neonicotinoid insecticides and pesticides that may reduce the homing abilities of bees, and compromise their nervous systems–

 

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–to deeply uneven distributions of epidemiological imbalances, examined in detail at the end of this post.  The density of the colonization of farmlands with factory farms and commercial crops provides a way to embody such complex patterns of causation–even if they hardly resolve the problems they pose.

Such severe environmental imbalances are the product of the concentration of agricultural practices that are increasingly removed form a sense of land-stewardship. The severity of the imbalance created both by the isolation of farms from the landscape and the poor practices adopted by Big Agra without adequate oversight is problematic.  The effective cordoning off of such spots as “off the map” make it important to take stock of their distribution, and the distortions created by their economies of scale–economies that both diminish foods’ nutritive value, endanger farm workers and regions, and make it difficult to quantify environment costs and consequences where they exist.

 

3.  Over-use of the “anthropocene” inevitably provokes sighs of deep resignation.  But it is rarely tied to the production of food or the bloating of farms beyond a responsible stewardship of th eland.  Even if numbering is knowledge, the quite extreme quantitative density and spread of factory farms across what remains of the arable expanse of the central states suggests a shift in our relation to the land from which there is no clear turning back:  the data visualization in the header to this post may only scratch the surface of an ill-fated agrarian revolution that entails a shifted relation to the land. This data reveals not only a deep distancing from farmed land, but a change in how things grow and live in the land, and how people work the land.  The remove of agribusiness from policies of land management is apparent not only in the changing national farmscape, as well as the broad potential for agrarian mismanagement that the recent proliferation of unmonitored factory farms represent in the United States–where they seem something like the perverse inversion of the yeoman farmer ideal.

For the dramatically increasing density of factory farms in focussed geographic locations have wreaked systemic changes in ecosystems so deeply devastating to be difficult to map in quantifiable or quantitative terms.  Indeed, one would be challenged to isolate the very indices by which such devastation might be meaningfully measured or capture the shifts in landscapes of food production of which they are among the most extreme, so removed are they from notions of captivation and husbandry of the recent past, and so widely have they changed not only the produce–GMO or not–and the livestock and animals that are maintained for slaughter.  The radically changed relation to the land.  Viewed in aggregate, the contours of an almost unbridled presence of Big Agra across specific states offer a striking landscape–and farmscape–that profits from the continued availability of groundwater and aquifers.  The consequences of intensive raising of livestock and drastic consequences of agricultural runoff whose abysmal results is readily revealed in other maps.

What notion of the custodial relation to the most intensively farmed regions If the notion of “rewilding” the landscapes of industrialized nations is a response to the growth of the anthropocene, the factory farm epitomizes an expansion of anthropogenic pollutants that have shifted the environmental landscape of developed countries, and come with significant human costs.  A growing range of GIS data visualizations that can be seen as symptomatic of an age increasingly obese with data–and difficult to process let alone comprehend, as navigating robust data streams quickly leads to a sense of drowning and disempowerment, the ability to distance oneself from the changing landscapes created by the increased intensity of factory farming provides the possibility of regaining a sense of critical perspective on the anthropogenic changes in the ecosystems of agricultural life.  The density of the aggregation of factory farms reveal an imbalance due to lack of clear restrictions on the intensity of their development, the excavation of whose consequences call for more careful comparison to other data maps. To be sure, the lack of restrictions on such intensive farming reflects, in a global context of aquifer depletion, provided by researchers at UC Irvine with NASA data, profiting from the continued supply of groundwater in the central states–

 

Global Water Storage 2003-13

legend UC Irvine

 

and the peculiarity of that abundance in a global context, which has created a particularly warped perspective on the feasibility of continuing to water such large-scale farms.

The retro maps of annual rainfall in the US produced by Flowing Data reveals, based on NWS data, how weather patterns in 2013 facilitated the sort of spatial distortions in the farmscape that the map in the header documents.

 

CHzuHwCUYAANoph.jpg-large

But the intensity of the landscape of factory farms that has been fashioned by Big Agra facilitated a huge rise in GMO crops, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics that suggest the systemic unhealthiness in the ecosystems that result.

 

4.  The quite rapidly shifting nature of the landscape of farming that has emerged in recent years, when factory farms have gained an unheard of density in many regions that signal a radically changed relation to food, suggests a new horizon of the anthropocene that demands excavation as an infographic that depicts our shifting relation to how Americans inhabit terrestrial expanse–and the risks we run in doing so.

 

Big Agra Maplegend factory famrs

 

The landscape of farmlands Big Agra has colonized and settled reflects a shift in the notion of land-use tied to globalization.  Even as glob tied that have freed humans from their dependence on local or regional ecosystems, the extent of alienation form an agricultural landscapes that have occurred in the past twenty years, and even over the last ten.

For the map reveals a profound super-personal alienation and remove from the farmed landscape, and remove from an ever-increasing density of farmland truly “extreme” in its narrowing of concentration on the potentialities of abundance and perverse privileging of an artificially induced economic abundance of select regions of cattle raising, dairy farming, hog farming, and chicken breeding that cannot be healthy or sustainable as forms of stewardship.  In a time when McDonald’s promises us artisan grilled chicken of a “stringy interior” distinguished by a “somewhat chewy texture” and “fake butter flavor,” the broader relation of most consumers to the meat that they eat seems distinctly challenged.

Even if the clustering darkest crimson that denote an extreme density of factory farming happens to aptly indicate the masking of an emotional attachment to place–more central a premise of factory farms than economic demand–the deep unsustainable nature of the density of factory farming is only scratched in the data visualization that is the header to this post.  For the deepest reds blanketing central states (and the Central and Imperial Valleys of the western states, as well as clear concentrations of crimson in pockets of North Carolina, Florida, western New York and the northwest) suggest scars that may prevent us from recognizing the places in a map that we might otherwise have recognized or know.  The illusion of economic security is in danger of erasing emotional attachments to place, in ways that have only begun to be appreciated or understood.

Such strikingly dense concentrations of factory farms in such regional pockets–indeed, their confounding resilience–is all to evident in the data visualizations that Food and Water Watch has carefully compiled from agricultural censuses over the past decade.  The recent multi-media assemblage Factory Farm Nation–an evident reference to “Fast Food Nation,” whose commercial injunction to overeat, “supersize it,” placed the blame squarely on the business of purveyors of easy meals that were sold at illusionistically cheap prices, without asking about their future health costs.  Yet what of the rewriting of agriculture that has concentrated dense sites of overfarming into our national landscape, as if to meet the nation’s ever-expanding and insatiable taste for meat?  Far from a pastoral landscape, the zones of intensive farming of subsidized monocrops as corn, soy or sorghum so often encouraged by subsidies and so readily converted to a plentiful source of animal feed.

The collective distribution of factory farms spread across the country are not so surprisingly concentrated in its Central Zone.  But the business model has taken seed in regions from California to Washington and Idaho, and to Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Carolina–as of 2012, the concentration of both the largest farms and the centers of meat processing were increasingly concentrated not only from decades past, but even over the past ten years, as large regions of deep red–marking extreme concentrations of factory farms–come to overwhelm large regions and specific economies, and be absent from other regions removed from agribusiness.

The spread of factory farming, facilitated both by state subsidies and GMO crops, is partly premised on the economic transformation of agriculture.  Less visible are its deeply deleterious environmental consequences and ecological effects–as well as create an increasingly unhealthy food chains–and systems of production that seem forcefully remove the consumer from the farm and manufacturing of food that arrives in most supermarkets across much of America.

 

Big Agra Map

Big Agra Map


legend factory famrs

5.  What makes the concentration of large farms so troubling is both the remove of food from markets and the conditions farming create–from both slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, shown here by asterisks, and the sacrificing of freshness (and nutritive value) in the over-production of such megacrops.  The concentration of farms pose challenges to the survival of small-scale farming outside very select economic niches, from parts of California, like Silicon Valley, to parts of New England and Vermont–and the steep challenges small farms face from Big Agra even in these areas.  But they depend on the increasing dependency of farmers on the technologies of farming on which Big Agra depends, both from standardized resistant seeds and pesticides to machinery.

The formidable concentration of cattle farming–a quintessential staple of factory farming–reflects the total distribution in 2012 of factory farms in the country, and even more intensely concentrated in the economies of the midwest,

Factory Farms: Cattle

legend factory famrs

With dairy farmers almost living in a somewhat greater variety of other states as of 2012:

Factory Farm Dairy 2012

legend factory famrs

and hog-farming occupying a similarly concentrated, if further contracted, set of select sites largely in the central states:

hog farming

legend factory famrs

The incredible intensity of carmine clusterings revealed in the data visualization above had profoundly changed from 2002, when the agrarian landscape was marked by a robust density of relatively high factory farms, but with fewer extreme concentrations, and an apparent greater range of meat-packing plants–

Big Agra Map

legend factory famrs

and even from the levels of large factory farms across the nation in 2007–

2007 Factory Farm Map Concentration

legend factory famrs

The state of Iowa appears as a uniform red that render its borders indistinct:

Iowa

Or the uniform red spread across similar farming states that border the Mississippi, which has helped create one of the largest hypoxic site in the world within the Gulf of Mexico, which absorbs the agricultural runoff emptying from the Mississippi River:

midwest factory famrs

The shift in the notion of a farm is suggested by the concentration in bordering regions of the apparatus of farming–including the threat of resistant strains of bacteria, large feed lots, and almost insoluble problems of the disposal of animal waste.

hqdefault

The parallel radical contraction of regions of chicken-meat “farming”–the raising of “broilers”–suggests an unwarranted density of what was once the most familiar of barnyard animals, and now seem to serve much of the country from select areas of megafarms in the southern states, as well as parts of Pennsylvania, California, Wisconsin and Washington, and a range of factory farms along the Mississippi in 2012, that suggest a landscape little changed from 1997, if even more localized:

chicken breeding

What happened to effect such a change save weak agricultural rules and opportunistic farm policies?  One can see a notable consolidation of those “farms” that raise “broilers”–chickens destined for cooking–during the decade and a half between 1997 and 2012, with a rising density of factory farms and the industrialization of poultry farming.

broilers 1997

broilers 2012

FF-BroilerChickens

6.  The rapid rise of large-scale supplies of feed generate steep risks.  Their expansion was doubtless encouraged by the subsidization of ever-larger farms that allowed geographic concentration of intense factory farming in the central states, the densest clustering of centers of meat-packing.  Fertilizing practices are a part of the picture of creating large feed lots that are in need of better mapping, and provide the possibility of the supersizing of farms across America together with the expansion of the application of herbicides–as much as pesticides.  Such new increasingly agricultural practices characterize most factory farms in America.

A combination of practices such as no-till agriculture, large feed lots, mono crops, and over-fertilized lands are the enabling factors, as much as the consequences, of the spread of the complexes of factory farms across so much of the agricultural landscape of the United States according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent Agricultural Census.

How these practices encourage the unhealthy degrees of concentration of factory farms raising animals for slaughter suggest not only hugely increased animal suffering.  The increase of some 20% of livestock that are raised in large factory farms created, for example, a huge amount of manure–some thirteen times that produced by the human population of the United States–that pose a risk to local ecologies.  It also courts the steep risk of effectively creating reservoirs of antibiotic resistant bacteria, not only in specific regions, but in the meat that arrives on one’s table or in restaurants, and provokes the evolution of bacteria resistant to the antibiotics that are regularly fed at low dosages to all livestock–effectively increasing the threat food-born pathogens that industry has minimized.  Indeed, the mapping of AR bacteria across the United States (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) have begun to be mapped themselves, although the data and certainty of the distributions mapped interactively by Extending the Cure based on particularly resistant infections has created a distribution that demands to be further refined in future years–but have already shown a huge rise over time.

mrsa_us_map_blog_final

p4-us-maps

Indeed, the extreme density of such factory farms in areas such as Iowa and Nebraska, whose almost undifferentiated terrain of deep red is studded with staggered meat-packing plants that serve a far greater area, preoccupy–as the steady rise of resistant antibiotic strains of bacteria across our national space, and the rise of antimicrobial resistance, and the huge expenditures of health care that both rises threaten to bequeath.  If increasingly sweeping the more developed world, related to both different standards of eating and to the marketing of anti-herbicides, as well as to problems in the recycling of wastewater, the resistance of antimicrobial bacterial strains pose a range of immense health risks–and a current health care cost in the United States that is estimated at 21-34 billion dollars a year, and some 100,000 deaths.

Although the diffusion of AR bacteria are to a large extent dependent on meat consumption, as much as actual locations of factory farms, the distribution of deep crimson in the central states and north and southwest offer an image of disturbing trends that demands to be excavated for its consequences, as well as contemplated for its intensity.  (They parallel the rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds.)

This seems to mirror both the extreme concentration of factory farms evident in the central states, as seen above in the case of Iowa,

Iowa

midwest factory famrs

or pockets of the American South,

Southern States

legend factory famrs

These images trace the increasing remove discrete stretches of farmlands from the bulk of the population, if not an actual alienation of farmlands as the raising and butchering of meat migrates into controlled settings where antibiotic-resistant (AR) bacteria flourish.  Resistant strains of staph are a problem worldwide, as the below prevalence map reveals, and Methicillin-resistant bacteria have become common across many of the regions consuming factory-farm raised poultry.

FF-BroilerChickens

533px-EARSS_MRSA_2008-en.svg

Registered incidence of MRSA in human blood (2008), Wikimedia

But it is one in which the United States remains in the lead–and far ahead of Mexico and especially far ahead of Canada, our neighbors to the north, where one finds anti resistant strains to be a fifth of the prevalence of the US:

38mrsa06

–and which seems concentrate din the eastern southern states, where it seems predominantly communicated in meat:

mrsa_us_map_blog_final

Such intensive areas of factory farming are more directly tied in the United States due to the unique geography of intensive farming promoted by Big Agra, the Sisyphean twin of the factory farm.

FF-DairyCowsFeedlot

7.  Agribusiness is the not-too-silent twin of the factory farm, generating the copious abundance of cheap feed that is the bread and butter of factory farm feed lots–the shortsighted widespread use of herbicides Big Agra increasingly adopts, with minimal federal oversight, has facilitated the suppressing of factory farms of similar short-sighted agricultural practices and the poor stewardship of the land they reveal.  Even as the existing studies by the WHO’s anti-cancer arm found “sufficient evidence” that the herbicide glyphosate causes cancer in non-human animals, and “limited evidence” of its causation of chromosomal damage and kidney disease in humans, the Monsanto produced pesticide was reclassified by the EPA with the result of allowing its increased use within the food chain, much as it had earlier shifted the herbicide’s classification as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to having “evidence of non-carcinogenicity”–a shift of 180 degrees–after Monsanto petitioned to increase the allowable amount of the herbicide that in 2001 was already the most-used agricultural herbicide–and constituted 74% of the herbicides farmers used in California in 2012–having increased some 65% in commercial agriculture during the previous decade.

While the widespread uses of such herbicides are not mapped and readily measured with the relative precision and exactitude of factory farms, whose census offers a projection of the estimated extent of the pounds of pesticide used in the US in different states, and indeed an estimated projection of the diffusion of their residue, that demand reflection.  The striking spread of Atrazine, among the deadliest herbicide that is most concentrated in the groundwater of the US, across agricultural states may reflect its use on corn.  But the subsidization of corn and sorghum have so facilitated a dense concentration of sites of cattle feed–some 80 million pounds were used in American crops in 2014, with a rather striking geographical concentration–that the demands to produce corn in abundance for ready markets has led to a concentration of corn-growing and a concentration of Atrazine application that seems to have changed the groundwater supplies of areas of the United States’ most abundant aquifers:

map-atrazine-us-usgs

map-atrazine-use-keyUSGS

The extremely high concentration of the particularly pernicious pesticide that has been so aggressively marketed by Syngenta is not only dumped in the ground in massive amounts in the ground.  But its traces persist in rivers and streams in 2007 in ways that reflect the expanding scope of its use in agricultural lands including more than half of all corn acreage–two-thirds of sorghum acreage; and up to 90 percent of sugar cane acreage in some states, creating run-off that by agricultural overflow that quite perceptibly pollutes the ambient waters–where it has, Professor Tyrone Hayes has shown, apparently creating sexual abnormalities in amphibian life–conclusively enough for Syngenta to pay $105 million to reimburse cities for the cost of implementing water filtration systems to remove Atrazine from drinking water in 2012 to conclude a class action lawsuit, and a multimillion dollar campaign aimed at discrediting scientists suggesting its the dangers of biological mutation its residues have been compellingly argued to cause.  Only long after the EPA had banned the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in homes due its close correlation to ADHD, reduced IQ, and poor cognitive development, the same pesticide was widely used in the Central Valley of California on crops of almonds, walnuts, oranges and alfalfa, ignoring the clear dangers that it poses to farm-workers and in run-off, even though the Pesticide Action Network urged an immediate and complete ban to protect agricultural workers and rural communities. The recent plan to restrict the pesticide’s use in farms came against arguments of its manufacturer, Dow Agrosciences, that its presence in runoff has a “negligible” effect, and noting that it is approved for use in some eight-eight other countries.

The spread of Atrazine in streams and waters that has been mapped on the basis of its agricultural use–if hypothetical and based on modeling–indicates the range of its potential spread into the regional groundwater of much of America.

map-atrazine-streams-500

atrazine_map2

 

The EPA has unsurprisingly found markedly high concentration in the surface water of those states where Atrazine is applied in greatest abundance, but a notably increased presence of Atrazine in groundwater as well:

 

Atrazine in Crops:Water EPA for Surface and Ground

EPA

Are the evident traces of herbicides such as Atrazine that seem evident in the environment similarly passed on through meats from nearby factory farms–and are they indicative of the sorts of attitudes to the environment that factory farming creates?  Indeed, a clear varying of the presence of the pesticide in drinking water is registered in those summer months of greatest runoff of water into the environment in a farming state such as Iowa–

Atrazine Levels Reflect Planting Season in Iowa

–and NRDC has found remarkable correlations in the pesticide’s concentration in watersheds and Public Water Systems that provide drinking water that reflect its greater presence in surface water, and cannot but raise eyebrows as to the changing quality of water and heath of inhabitants of such regions:  even though the high spikes of Atrazine in ground water during the months of June and July, when plants are presumably given the highest doses to keep pests off, the lower national averages measured by the EPA allows such unhealthy levels to exist during a few month every year, although at substantial risk to nearby communities.

The picture of water systems and watersheds with hold high concentrations of the pesticide in both “raw” and “finished” water was measured in 2015, showing greater local concentrations in Kansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois, as well Iowa, which suggests the spread of the pesticide’s contamination of regional drinking water supplies.

Atrazine in Stream Water

NRDC (map data from 2015)

IA [Converted] EDIT.eps

There is the sense that a different set of standards has occurred in exposure to health risks in select parts of the nation that reflect the intense application of pesticides like Atrazine in those regions that tolerate factory farms.

The strikingly intense and expansive use of the most popular herbicide Paraquat in crops from corn to sorghum to tubers and as well to sugar–leaves a considerable residue on crops, even if it is designed mostly to eliminate weeds and other plants.  After being both notoriously and extensively sprayed from the air by helicopters in the late 1970s on marijuana and opium fields in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, in a historical roll-out of the pesticide, it has gained wide sales–but also tied to liver, lung, and kidney failure, it has made a huge comeback with the rise of no-till farming at many large farms, broadly distributed across the nation.  Also marketed and produced by Syngenta, the corporation has spent considerable funds to dissociate from studies that suggested the close ties of its residues to neurotoxicity and Parkinson’s disease.

fig-072

And the remarkable promotion and rise of the agricultural use of Glyphosate–the most popular herbicide across the country–and its residual effects tells a similar story. From 2009 to 2012, is estimated agricultural use was particularly prominent across California’s Central Valley, but expanded across the big farming states of the midwest and eastern seaboard in ways that echoes the distribution of large factory farms.

GlyphosateUsage2009

Untitled 5Glyphosate high 2012

8.  A strikingly similar estimated distribution of the potentially devastating neonicotinoid Imidacloprid–believed a major factor in apiary colony collapse disorder–is scarily similar, if not even more widespread geographically–and has only grown.

2008mapimidaclopridCCD/Neonicotinoid

CB-FIgure-1

The most common herbicide in America, whose application pretty much mirrors the disposition of agricultural lands in the country, was long ago approved by the EPA, the potential carcinogen glyphosate has been used without the degree of harsh criticism that use of Atrazine faced after repeated studies indicated its potentially debilitating deformities on wildlife. Yet increasing ties of the herbicide to autism have been terrifying–and led Stephanie Seneff to the recent prediction that half of American kids will be autistic by 2025, and the Environmental Working Group to create a quite sophisticated ESRI interactive map designed to help parents learn whether children’s schools lie within zones where glyphosate is sprayed, and reveal the particular concentration of pesticides in close proximity to schools across the central US and Mississippi.

elementary schoolsEstimated Glyphosate Application/Environmental Working Group/www.ewg.org

EWR legend

The probability that the non-selective herbicide, marketed since 1992 under the trade names designed to appeal to a sense of security–like Roundup, Rodeo, and Pondmaster, actually allows residues to accumulate with carcinogenic effects in produce like soybeans and wheat has been suppressed, despite the mapping of its potential effects.  This may especially have grown Monsanto has introduced GMO glyphosene-resistant crops–greatly expanding the market of an herbicide still widely marketed at Walgreens and other stores, and used in residential areas as well as in agricultural sites.

Glyphosate

8.  The rapid rise of GMO crops has encouraged the ascendancy of Roundup, now patented by Monsanto, which has replaced Atrazine.  As the effectiveness of atrazine declined, and since many crops no longer tolerate glyphosate, the chemical prohibits the rotation of crops once a common agrarian practice, and suggests a new landscape of over intensive farming, which in corporates herbicide residues–as well, predictably, as glyphosate-resistant weeds in some thirty-five states.

resistant weeds

As much as we demonize nefarious chemical corporations who are the purveyors of poisonous sprays, from Syngenta to Monsanto, perhaps the true culprits lie in the lack of agricultural regulation, and poor economic planning that allowed the rise of factory farms, where the rise of cheap feed created by large-scale agriculture has generated the not-so-astoundingly parallel rise of feedlots in factory farms, in ways that have changed the landscape by which much food is eaten across the country, encouraging a free market of consolidation of farms, without calculation of its costs.

Increased population in suburban areas, often quite close to farmlands, has increased the risk of exposure to known carcinogens and rates of childhood cancer.  The results of such factory farms and economics of subsidized agriculture has led to an increasing number of schools that lie beside areas where GMO crops are planted, and roundup used, in ways that create considerable risks we haven’t bothered to adequately envision, even if they might be easily foreseen.

Total Schools in States within 1,000 feet of roundupd:GMO corn or soybeans

Well-funded teams of publicists and scientists help the PR machines that are run by firms such as Syngenta have effectively blanketed the media not only to undermine –and even created its own PR groups, spin teams, scientists, and “grassroots” groups–in a malapropistic move apparently oblivious of its own odd choice of terminology for a producer of herbicides–that is dedicated to misinform American consumers.  Such a legacy of promoting agribusiness and factory farms seems a lasting legacy from two Bush administrations that will continue to afflict the country’s landscape in future years, as engines of disinformation distance the meaning of actual debate from the general public.

Based on data that the National Resources Defense Council acquired by a Freedom of Information Act during litigation with the Bush Administration, from the EPA’s “Ecological Watershed Monitoring Program” and “Atrazine Monitoring Program” that they released in August 2009 and from a report on Atrazine contamination in surface and drinking water across the Central United States, the hidden topography of atrazine pollution across the United States reflects the dangers that even low-level pollution in groundwater has created in ways that give a new meaning, if with some symbolic appropriateness, to the much-bandied about notion of what constitute our nation’s “reddest” states.

atrazine_distribution_map_400_0_0

Indeed, the data on the growth of herbicides and pesticides so central to the spread of agribusiness in America, and the consequent reproduction of oversized factory farms, demands mapping and remapping in terms of the prevalence of cancer and other potentially environmentally-induced genetic mutations, and increased incidence of cancer among the young–especially in regions that border beside farmlands were use of Glyphosate and other herbicides or pesticides has rapidly increased.  One study that mapped potential exposure to carcinogens commented on the rising populations near to farmlands in the agricultural powerhouse of California’s Central Valley, the epicenter of a state known for using a large share of all agricultural pesticides and herbicides in the US–to reveal their increasing proximity to residential settlements.

Propargite

9.  What are some of the ways of taking stock of the considerable damage of such widespread use of carcinogenic or possibly carcinogenic pesticides, both to farm workers, neighbors, and also in the food chain?

While few contractors provide protective clothing or respirators to migrant or local workers, and many use clothing or cotton bandanas that, when washed with family clothing, risk spreading contaminants within a family, the recent creation of adequate protective costumes farm workers can easily don, such as the Seguro Protective Suit, are actually designed to be worn everyday by farm workers who work with fruit and vegetables in California’s Central Valley, lest workers be forced to dispose of or wash clothes separately:  the suit features materials able to repel and absorb airborne pesticides that might otherwise settle on skin or clothes, and prevent them from lodging in the lungs of farm workers who would otherwise be exposed to them.  If many workers bring home high concentrations of pesticides into their home and exposing them to steep risks both of birth defects and genetic mutations–despite protective goggles, chemical gloves, or masks.

uites

The residual presence of pesticides lodged in handkerchiefs and bandanas lack adequate chemical filters and carry carcinogens into the home and belongings; and despite current proposals of the Berkeley Expert Systems Technology Lab, producing or providing workers with adequate protective suiting actually rarely occurs.

10.  The topography of pesticide use is not exactly news.  But the widespread nature of the concentration of factory farms, which approaches terrifying intensity in specific census blocks, seem destined to have an increasing effect on human life.  Despite the lack of acceptance of confirmations of the risk of pesticides like Roundup, due to their corporate production, the diffusion of pesticide use exposes both farm workers and populations to increased medical risk, as well as nearby residents and transportation workers.

The lack of adequate measurement of rising level of risk is shocking.  But its ill effects can be measured and visualized in a recent bevy of maps of causes of hospitalization throughout the state, using data generated by the California Health Care Foundation, to map local variations of operations and disease based on state-wide hospitalizations.  Viewing these maps, striking in themselves, is a chance to perform the simple relational algebra to compares the intensity of distributions of farming with the prevalence of illness that might be termed a mental form of map algebra for California alone, without getting into GIS tools, to observe the otherwise unexplained regional and zonal concentration of illness:  even without subtracting those areas of least farming, a picture emerges, even without the prevalence of farming areas in or around the central valley.

One might profitably run through a list of reasons for the radical local variations in the distribution of hospitalization for hysterectomies,

hysterectomies in California

cases of bilateral mastectomies,

bilateral mastectomy

or gall-bladder removals

Gall Bladder Removal CA

in ways that raise clear and pressing questions about the effects of ambient areas.

The different distribution of operations such as coronary angiographies throughout the state rather reflect the relative availability of diagnostic services in specific areas.

coronary angiography

The practice of such “map algebra” involve, properly speaking, creating relations, as by subtraction, of spatial incidence over a set of cells, in order to reveal relations among two temporally sequential or related (or potentially related) raster datasets to reveal interesting homologies, as these maps of NASA’s Land Surface Temperature in North America of 2014 and 2015:

Map-Algebra-Logo-1

A similar subtraction of individual cells is less able to reveal so clear a contrast of regional variations, perhaps, in the intensity of pesticides and cancer, or the presence of pesticides with the possible likelihood of cognitive impairment and dementia–by Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, or even of depression, and heightened neurotoxicity especially in the case of Paraquat–would provide a compelling correlation over space and a map that would be difficult to ignore.  One might begin from a negative map of the correlation of diseases to those areas where pesticides are less prevalently used, or a simple ratio between incidence of illnesses in cells correlated to with the prevalence of pesticide use.  In either case, a focus on the increased chance of illnesses in those areas where pesticide use is most intense–and potential carcinogens most intensively applied–demands correlation to hospitalizations as well as to length of chemotherapy treatments.

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Filed under Big Agra, data visualizations

Maps for Reframing an Over-Farmed Landscape

Agriculture maps frame the viewer’s relation to a settled expanse and farmed space.  They describe where we get our food, the intensive over-cultivation of regions of the midwest, and chart the changed fertility of cropland that have been the consequence of large-scale industrial farms in recent decades–and offer something of a basis to orient us to their configuration but to calculate their consequences.

Maps offer a palimpsest of our recent reshaping of the rural world and our relation to cultivated farmlands.  As such, they bridge the remove of most Americans from an agricultural world in ways that we have, as shoppers in malls and supermarkets, largely forgotten and moreover distanced ourselves from.  The distance is all too evident in our shopping habits and expectations for the year-round availability of fresh produce–even if we shop in Whole Foods.  Rather than mapping farmlands’ fertility, they try to map the active recreation of the rural as a site of economic activity, as much as an ecological unit:–a recreation underwritten in our current Farm Bill, even though few seem to have familiarity with the extent to which  Department of Agriculture subsidies have informed the geography of farmed lands.  For although nearly 54% of the continental U.S. is devoted to agricultural land–a slightly larger amount than the 40% worldwide–almost 99% of folks in the United States don’t work on farms.  The geographic and conceptual remove of these maps from rural life stands at odd ends with the fact that most policy-making decisions occur across a rural-urban divide.  Indeed, the disconnect between most Americans’ lifestyle and the growing spread of large farms in rural America suggest salutary benefits in perusing the wide range of maps from open data to immerse oneself in the quandaries of sustaining rural productivity in an age of increasing food demand.

For this is how we largely use our land:  world-wide, an area approximating the size of South America is dedicated crop production, and far more—7.9 to 8.9 billion acres—to raise livestock.  If this division does not seem that effective, we might begin from how the devotion of our own landscape to agriculture an effective form of land-use.  For this landscape provides a model for how macroeconomic interests have altered the relation to the agrarian landscape worldwide.  Despite the continued romance of the pastures and crops we produce, the mapping of agriculture productivity is particularly difficult in the failure to define the multiple adversely impacts on national farms–a problem that seems multiplied by the disconnect between most politicians from our agrarian landscape, and, indeed, most concepts of space and our agricultural space–both of which have led to a disquieting hybridization of our political and agricultural space that demands to be untangled.  In an age of data-driven maps, the static images of data visualizations may seem out of date.  The layering of visualizations however challenges viewers to assemble an image of urban-rural relations across the lower forty-eight–by concretely mapping and rendering evident such variables as crops in farms, farms in the land, the folks in the farms and the cities–that can provide a portrait not only of where we are, but of where we’re spending money, and how we might better conceptualize the fertility of the land we farm.

If all maps give visible form to data, maps of our agrarian landscape also create data for their observers in powerful ways.  Agricultural maps of land-use deserve to be examined for their inter-relations, as much as for what they ‘say.’  No single visualization should be taken as an image of the farmed landscape–but rather offer a point of entry into that the forces that shape the landscape and the very contested views of our national cropland, and what might be appreciated as the shifting ‘cropscape’ of an increasingly post-rural world.  (Even if over 90% of the farms in America are small and, for a variety of reasons, family run–96% of farms with cropland are family run, producing some 87% of the total value of crop-production in 2011, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, based on data from the Agricultural Resource Management Survey–the landscape is increasingly defined by large agribusiness, and by how such farmers react to a market of global futures as much as national or regional needs.)  The expansion of our agrarian land has been mapped by William Rankin, whose “World Cropland” (2009) provides something of a base-line for the conception of the temporal expansion and intensification of farmed crops.

 

Agriculture-landuse-2000William Rankin, courtesy Edible Geography

 

The layered images of farmlands that I consider in this post create a basis for future interactive analysis.  Even without snazzy animations of time-lapse imaging of Google Earth or Google Earth Pro.  By doing so, this post hopes to raise questions about how the relation and use of cropland to American agriculture might be most effectively mapped to would bring greater familiarity with the dilemmas of farming and agricultural practices.  At a time when most are increasingly more unfamiliar with the organization of agricultural life that with the rising of the tides, we are all too ready to view agricultural practices in a purely macroeconomic–rather than environmental–lens.  Although we imagine the agrarian landscape as an unconstrained or open space, the visualizations offer insight into what  might be best be understood as a complex mosaic not only of individual interlocking ecological regions, as this ESRI visualization of the High Plains, Corn Belt, and Great Plains, but a complex economic dynamics it conceals.  For despite its accuracy, and the differences between bioregions and eco regions, the unified landscape indeed conceals the divides created by the now dominant (if warped) view of each eco region as a source of crops on a global market–a view that has informed the rural landscapes over the past twenty to thirty years, from corn belt to the wheat fields to High Plains.

 

ESRI Ecoregions

 

For as much as map nature, the division and conceptual of agricultural space in America is effectively under-written by the world market’s orientation to its products, rather than to the individual farm as a unit of farmed land.  There has been something of a cognitive re-mapping of the national agrarian space, not only in terms of the needs of local bioregions or the diverse needs of bioregions that distinguish the alleged uniformity of agrarian expanse, that turns around the greater significance of cropland as a term of economic value, based on the extraction of grain or grasses from the land, distinct from the management of agriculture.  The change in focus–and indeed of conceptual mapping–might allow us to look at the very same verdant terrain in Moscow, Idaho in markedly different ways, even before we’ve begun to map the variety of local crops.

 

Moscow, ID

 

The increased extraction of goods from crop lands–from corn to ethanol to silage to switchgrass–instills a view of the commoditized landscape, more familiar from contemporary images from real estate maps of land-value than to the locally or spatially situated sense of agricultural land in a specific landscape.  The  shifting nature of the farm has altered the agrarian landscape in recent times:  despite some debate on the future of the family farm, the deceptive average stability of the size of farms has masked the rapid expansion of small farms that has paralleled an even greater expansion of large agribusiness.  The consequent conversion of most farming acreage to cropland of far larger farms has created quite new processes of food production:  if the mean size of a farm is 234 acres, most cropland is on farms of over 1,000 acres, and over a third on farms of over 2,000 acres.  We have seen a very recent massive increase in the sizes of farms in the corn belt and northern plains–two areas where they have more than doubled in acreage and productivity, no doubt partly in response to agricultural technologies, fertilizer, and farm-seeding, as well as to the reclamation of grasslands.

 

Decline of Small Farms

 

Something of a tipping point may have arrived in the expansion of farm size in these regions of the central United States, and the power of the economic investments behind them:  the ecology of the landscape threatens to become replaced by the commodities we extract and map in them.  By mapping the dedicated mass of biological production across regions of the country, we can se the warping of the nature of land-use that we have perpetuated in recent years, as the practice of fresh farming has become overwhelmingly concentrated in pockets of high-scale production, whereas we abandon most land to consumption in shopping malls or residential tracts, and confine a density of large-scale farming to parts of Iowa, Illinois, and North and South Dakota, and Arkansas–and one pocket eastern Florida, California and Washington.

 

map_biomass_crop_residues

A similar change might under-write, in multiple senses, the reframing of the agrarian landscape of the United States as a source of investment rather than view it as a single or united landscape:  provocative data visualizations of farmed land in the United States suggests that we have long ago passed a similar sense of tipping point.  Data visualizations are supple tools to chart notions of cropland and pasture are less rooted in place and space, and mark the results of viewing the farms in extractable units–corn or animal feed or soybeans–that shift agrarian wealth from the fertility of the lands and bounty of a region, into a map of value and investment, and often of intensive production, fertilization, and even GMO crops.

There is something paradoxical or perverse about using data visualizations as a record of landscapes, and the end is not to aestheticize data visualizations as cognitive tools–although the visualizations offer quite provocative by their colors schemes alone:  the images by which the conversion and farm management of the region has created offer interesting images to meditate on both the construction and the future of crop lands, and relative coherence of the concept as a viable construction of the agrarian space with which we live and to which we are deeply attached in ways that cannot only begin to be mapped.  Such visualizations of the continuous forty-eight are a useful place to begin to visualize the transformation of cropland, because their qualitative depth presents such compelling pictures of the community and of how its inhabitants use its land.  Take, for example, how Dustin Cable’s mapping of Census Data by one dot per person, on Stamen design’s base-map of the nation, affords a clear division in population just west of the Mississippi River.

Census Block gaping hole west of Miss

1.  Cropland, increasingly located in the less inhabited region between the High Plains and west of the Mississippi, has been shaped by the devaluing and reframing of cropland in terms of how much can be extracted from investment.   Even in the face of new stressors on agricultural land-use, from rural out-migration to the decline of the family farm to the decline of hospitable local environments, and the government under-writing of agribusiness and large farms:  crops are valued have combined to create a new agricultural landscape and concomitant foodscape that was more often linked to a macroeconomic context, in place of questions of how food can get to the marketplace.  The expansion of transportation has effectively removed what food we eat from where we live for most.

By reconsidering the range of forms of mapping farms and the use of farmlands, we must consider the landscape of farming in which we increasingly live, even if our food rarely derives from it. US farming incomes have appreciably risen since 2010-11, attracting some financial markets, but the dynamics of farming are too often based on models of extraction, rather than of nurturing the local landscape.  As the production of corn has increased, since 1980, 400 percent, soybeans 1,000 percent, and wheat 100 percent, as US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has noted, largely based on agricultural technologies and machines, including GPS seed drills, combines, and tractors, the mapping of farms have relied on being under-written by tax dollars to the tune of 30-50% by government agencies that have less regard for the mapping of farmlands.  If crop insurance has helped to increase productivity some 50% since 1982, the expansion of farming technologies have shifted attention from the ecosystems and landscapes:  cropland used for crops declined almost uniformly by about 50% since 1982, especially in the Northern Plains, and land-use for crops by 13%–at the same time as the amount of land dedicated to pasturage markedly increased.  Corn, soy, wheat, hay, cotton, sorghum and rice traditionally constitute the bulk of farmed land; corn, soy, and wheat remain the largest cultivated crops, but the production of corn has peaked.

Millions of Acres

The range of visualizations of the changing face of farming and consequences of the emerging landscape or foodscape have neither been fully calculated or understood, and, even in an age of continuous LandSat photographs of the nation’s land cover, is challenging to map.  The proliferation of maps of farmlands, from Landsat images of cropland to the expanse of regional farms, suggest a compelling illusion of coverage and expanding food production that may offer a less reliable guide to an actual landscape being devoured by agricultural machinery:  if our agricultural policy is intended to bolster the strength of its remaining crops, policy has changed the landscape based on macroeconomics more than on-the-ground decisions, often ignoring place and space as construction with  monocrops such as corn, soybeans, or grasses that are far from demand-based.  The scarcity of water for irrigation in large part need to take stock of irrigation practices in such intensively farmed lands, in the hopes to “provide a better accounting of water use, cropland productivity, and water productivity.” The consequent proliferation of satellite-based remote sensing of farmlands provide an archive and a mirror of land use that may evoke the fear of a new form of agrarian surveillance–albeit one to encourage agreed best-practices of water conservation–but rather offer a feed-back loop to survey the recent transformation of the landscape that the reframing of national farmlands has wrought.

The striking concentration of farmed acreage in the central ten to eleven states has created a quite dramatic imbalance between the demand for agricultural subsidies and desire to control wasted water that has been so sharply contested it is difficult to agree on among elected legislative representatives.  Is it possible that special interest groups might gain greater sway in the manipulation of maps to chart future agricultural policy?

 

Farms in America

 

It is striking that during the period of just 2002-7, the acreage devoted to farmlands intensified in those central states, even as the nation saw a dramatic reduction in agriculture’s spread.

 

Change in farmed acreage 2002-7

 

The identical period was marked by a decline in farmed cropland acreage across the entire nation that exceeded 27 million acres, a loss apparently predominantly located in the central United States, as well as California’s Central Valley and the rural South, from Louisiana to central Florida and West Virginia:

 

Declining Cropland USA 2002-7

 

As of 2007, concentrations of those farms operated either by families or individuals were uneven in the very same regions of the central states, and in the north-central states dropped to less than 75 percent.

 

Farms Operated by Families or Individuals--2007.

At the same time, national drought placed undue pressure on farms to maintain their profitability, as this map of the counties affected by drought through 2012, compiled by the USDA’s Farm Services Administration–and who are compelled to take up drought insurance–seems to make clear.

Primary and Contiguous Counties of Drought, USDA FSA

 

2.  Maps of agricultural production reveal the increasing remove of an agricultural landscape of the nation from its cities, and from large urban areas–and indeed concentrated in a relatively restricted region of the central United States.  Of the 2.3 billion acres in the United States given to agriculture, in 2007 just under one-fifth were dedicated to crops (408 million, or 18 percent)–a number that had decreased by some 34 million acres over 2002-2007.  The claim to map the comprehensive changes in land-use and land-cover in the coterminous United States from 1973 to 2000–the broader goal of the professional paper–by local surveys and satellite imagery and remotely sensed data–begins to document and explain many of the deeper changes in contemporary land-cover change, to which this post returns below.

The composition of farmlands in current years suggest a marked concentration in cropland.

Cropland in USA (2007)

13sept_feature_macdonald_photo

The notable concentration of cropland at a remove from urban markets (noted in grey sectors of wheels in the above data visualization) and at a remove from population concentrations defines something like a belt of government subsidies that sustain large regions of agriculture–often of monoculture crops–that are abstracted from actual patterns of habitation.  It is impossible to map how this concentration of cropland came about from a disinterested point of view, but data visualizations offer a fragmented view of some of the narratives by which the landscape has been and is being shaped, and the distorted notions of place and space that they generate:  the visualizations suggest a range of narratives about the effectiveness of agricultural subsidies,  the foodscapes created in the rural United States, shaped through the changing relation of farming as an extraction of value from the landscape, rather than as a response to local economic needs.  The shifting optic that stresses the relation of the landscape to the national economy has re-framed the landscape’s fertility.

Rather than providing a coherent “map” of the agricultural economy and government investment in farms, data visualizations offer snapshots that provide a sense of multiple narratives that shape the relation to the new rural landscape.  The somewhat fragmented picture they offer present several narratives about how we’ve come to regard the farming of the land, and present questions of how to unite or reconcile the varied and discordant narratives we’ve come to tell about our tutelage of an agrarian landscape and how to best meet its needs. And they don’t add up to a collective image of a landscape that is designed to be habitable over the long term, let alone economically viable.

The problem of all these maps is how to visualize–and conceptualize–or relation to the collectivity of farmed lands that could best take account of their variety.  Indeed, the possibility of mapping the mosaic of agricultural productivity must begin from remapping their relations to regional needs, in ways that are obscured by privileging their relation to commercial products and food markets, as opposed to food needs–or the value of locally produced food.  The multiple mechanisms by which the state and government has chosen to invest in agriculture–and promote the production of certain products on farms, to the exclusion of others–have historically shifted away from  traditionally microeconomic understandings of the farm and rural agriculture to more macroeconomic questions in ways that are difficult to map, but have rewritten one’s relation to the land and the obscured the landscapes that they have begun to change.

3.  The remote-sensing of shifting maps of land cover in the United States is extremely of the moment, and not only for the impact of climate change.  It may be odd to present data visualizations as a landscape, but as indices of both productivity and indebtedness, regional map-based visualizations offer ways of thinking about how the land is seen in ways that have not yet been fully understood.  For if the mapping of rural America and its agricultural productivity are increasingly contested, the landscape .  Maps of farm subsidies offer telling mirrors of the extent of government investment in agrarian expanse.  They provide a sense of the expectations for the value of land-use, and frame the image of productivity one would want to produce:  but they are also the result or end-product of the negotiation of local demands, by tracing an image of the changing face of farmed land riven with debts, subsidies, relative lack of profitability and indemnities, the bulk of which go to larger farms, that expand to make up for the sizable decline in farmed acres.

When we map the huge levels of out-migration that occurred from 1980 to 2000–or from the Clinton years to the Bush years–marked by a decline of the population of the so-called “corn belt” in Nebraska, Iowa, southern Michigan, and Kansas–we can see the changed character of the rural landscape in America, as much as by the huge decline in crop diversity about which I’ve blogged in relation to the expansion of agricultural production that has been fed by agricultural subsidies–monocrops that maps of food reveal as having far less reference to a region or place, at a remove from urban areas of consumption that do not best serve populations.  The shifts in settlement away from the central US were clear long before 2010, but the distribution devised by Dustin Cable maps from that year’s Census maps a starkly blank central and west, into which extend feathery wisps, clinging to roads and interstates, the new rivers of rural settlement.

 

Dustin Cable's Census Block Data Divide

The long-term but recently drastic population declines from the Great Plains and Corn Belt have been a prominent back story on the remapping of American agricultural diversity, as has the declining revenues and work associated with farmlands, often worked by fewer and growing crops with greater intensity; losses of population in rural regions orient the viewer to the shifting national foodscape, whose image of dwindling population in non-metro areas reveal stressors on the economic structures of rural agriculture, and of the relation between urban and rural lands, or between the expansion of farming to meet the population growth of urban areas.   (This population shift that can also be charted by the expansion of “Heat islands” of “impervious surface area,” paved urban and extra-urban areas, mapped by Landsat images and night-time lighting, that exert disproportionate influence on climate change and remove a sense of urban settlement from agricultural space.)  The loss of populations to some extent mirror the decline of family farms and rise of agribusiness, which tries to meet growing population needs.

rural-pop-loss-map Economic Research Service

 

This picture gains another layer of complexity once we consider the infusion of government subsidies to agriculture in the very same states–subsidies inflating monocrop cultivation that have created a new map of the country’s farmlands, over the decade dominated by the previous Farm Bill, and created a new and unprecedented level of indemnity and indebtedness in farms that are now considered as cropland, but often face too little water to be productive.  While funds were distributed, they were concentrated in the same area where economic profits declined, and family farms shuttered–and an overall decrease in cropland nationwide was offset by increasing amounts of land dedicated to pasture and grasslands, according to the 2011 USDA ERS report.  There is a tortured logic of dedicating increased land to corn and silage as animal feed:  since it takes 10 to 14 pounds of grain-based feed for a cow to gain 1 pound of flesh; subsidizing animal feed is an outrageously uneconomic way to produce our food supply–although the international market for American meat is high.

subsidies-map499

 

Many of the same farms and acreage of farmlands are enrolled in federal crop insurance, changing the complexion of farms and character of government subsidies for land and increasing fear of their indemnities–and an increasing amount of farms enrolled in insurance programs nationwide, but especially dense in areas where state farming programs are established.

 

Acres Enrolled in Crop Insurance--2007

4.  What are the reasons for this investment, aside from the desire to keep the local economy afloat in hard times?  Despite the relatively restricted regions of intensive planting of subsidized crops, we remain tied to the mindset of a picture of the nation’s economically productive landscape as it was imagined circa 1940, when one-third of the world’s production of corn came from the central states, and half of the farmers in the central United States were tenant farmers:

 

An Economic Picture of the US 1940

 

The current agrarian landscape has sharply diverged from one where 62% of global production of oil was located, 52% of the entire world’s corn was harvested and Grade “A” farmland existed across the Midwest. But the attempt to invest money in the landscape to bolster its production of economically desirable products that might perpetuate this image, even at the expense of local farms and rising levels of indemnity.  Protectionist legislators have continued to write into and perpetuate in our most recent national Farm Bill, although that landscape no longer exists, even if it struggles to support the image of a fertile range of grazing and farm land in the “Nation’s Bread Basket” in a land where subsidies are crucial and indemnities endemic, and local ecologies often overlooked.

The more restricted areas of cropland, combined with the recent expansion of federal subsidies to certain areas, regions, and crops reflect the relative constraints of crops within the national land cover–whose row crops are measured below across the coterminous United States–can be traced from 1992 to 2006, with special attention to relations of row crops (light brown), pasturage (yellow) and shrub lands (tan) in the central states–noting the tortured logic of dedicating cropland to animal feed if it takes 10 to 14 pounds of grain-based feed for a cow to produce but 1 pound of animal flesh.

Midwest Landcover in Tan row crops

1992 Landcover icons

Row Crops 1992 v. Pasture and Shrubland

The Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium from 2001 reveals deep inroads of grasslands–with a slightly changed color-scheme–at a stunning spatial resolution of thirty meters, using remotely sensed Landsat Enhanced Thematic Mapper+, to differentiate land cover, and show an expanding northwest and midwest, even if the changes are slightly exaggerated by a stronger color spectrum–in which it almost seems that the physical remove of these row-crops from agrarian needs creates its own internal economy of production that has altered how cropland is conceived across the central states.

Landcover 2001 mapUSGS Land Cover Institute (LCI), 2001

The 2006 wall-to-wall land cover database, although it groups crops collectively, shows increasing inroads of pasture (yellow) and grasslands (lightest green) and slightly diminished cropland:

 

Land-Cover 2006

NLCD 2006 Legend

It might be compared to the highlighting of pasturage in a lighter almost neon green in this USDA map of cropland layers of 2009:

cropland-2009-us

 

5.  The increased incursion of grasslands, pasture, and silage into the cropland in the cover layer conceals the deeper changes in the organization of agricultural expanse–but also masks the sort of crops that are growing in each region–including the expansion of corn and soy.   Given the complexity of processing these groundcover maps, a sequence of data visualizations might reveal as a radically changed landscape both of government intervention and of expanding monocrops.  As a point of contrast, however, the North American Land Change Monitoring System monitored the land cover of all North America in 2005, using Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) to reveal the far greater expansion of cropland to the north–an area projected for greater future productivity of crops such as wheat, due both due to lower rising temperatures and the expansion of arable land for growing wheat, canola, and barley in all Canada by 15%  in a 2008 United Nations’ Environmental Program map based on predicted “increased temperatures, precipitation differences and . . .  carbon
fertilization for plants,” while American productivity of crops is predicted to drop some 15%-50% on account of the impact of climate change.

 

agricultural productivity, projected

 

The image of arable land above the 48th parallel indeed seems much more expansive, anyways, and even far more fertile with crops today–not only due to a different structure of state subsidies, but also to different agrarian practices, and a high-speed rail dedicated to transporting grain to across the country.

 

2005 North American Crop Land

The relatively restricted cropland in the United States was balanced by, oddly, an expansion of land dedicated to agribusiness crops that were less dedicated or directed to the dining table, and to an increasing mountain of investment in ostensible farmlands.

There is some evidence for the bad effects of the unmitigated expansion of row-crops in the landscape of the central United States.  For the area of American cropland include a conversion of a substantial amount of land–2.5 million acres–from the Conservation Retention Program to the growing of soybeans and corn in North Dakota and Montana, creating some total plantings of some 97 million acres on formerly CRP lands since 2007, largely to the benefit of large agribusinesses who employ monoculture plantings, with a huge impact on the local landscapes.

Conversion to Cropland:Corn

The distribution across the country partly reflected a new “map” of how agriculture gained USDA appropriations to expand the growth of crops that might not necessarily meet food demand.  Although the investment in agriculture lumps subsidies, disaster relief, crop insurance premiums, and conservation programs in an area effectively costs the nation; questions of such spending are perhaps too significant to be determined by guidelines of a single Farm Bill.  In this map, farms have increasingly met needs for feed, fuel, and fiber, even while using less cropland to do so–and the design for subsidization was warped through the different agribusiness and corporate interest groups that may well have led legislators to concentrate resources in specific legislative districts, with limited  investigations of their long-term effectiveness.  Despite a massive conversion of nearly 400,000 acres of grasslands into cropland in 2012 alone, such “sod-saving” provisions in the Farm Bill are difficult to secure; states so notorious in converting grasslands to agricultural interests–like Florida, Nebraska, or South Dakota, and Iowa–to be known as “Sodbusters” seem indebted to the promise of jobs that big ag might secure.

cropland-conversion-map

A similar logic seems to play out in the receiving of agricultural subsidies to encourage the development of farmlands, most often with an eye to farm futures rather than local needs.

Sumner-Eddyville-Miller FFA Chapter (1)_thumb

farm-web-g

As a result, states are not directly subsidized–or farmers, for that matter–but the Department of Agriculture allocates funds to districts, creating a new map of the economy, as much as a map responding to needs of crop-cultivation or food-needs, based on this map of subsidies collected in bulk by some twenty-two congressional districts in the decade 1995-2004.

subsidies-map499 with payments

6.  Such representations reflect the realities of the shifting agrarian landscape.  They offer resources to refine our picture of the land by delineating varied concentrations of national resources by government investment.  These representations of agrarian landscapes serve as a gauge to negotiate our relations to reality, as much as to measure them, placing into visual relief how we project value onto agricultural landscapes without attending to the specificity of their character–and tend to link value to the continued economic productivity of rural lands in ways that deny local changes.  This even extended to the conversion of much “highly erodible land” (HEL) into cropland for moneys from 2008-12, often to intensify the farming of subsidized corn and wheat, filling areas from Montana to Texas that are centered in what was once a Dust Bowl devastated by persistent drought.

2008-2012 acreage of eroded land to crops

This occurred even as large numbers of wetlands, also important wildlife habitats of their own, and wetland buffers, were were also being converted to cropland in many of the same regions of the Dakota prairies, Montana and Minnesota, adding up to a loss of far over 15, 300 acres each year from 2001 to 2011–most (60%) in order to plant corn and soybeans.

Wetlands to Croplands

The individual county costs for such conversion of such acts of bad agricultural stewardship averaged, in the case of counties loosing wetlands, $10.1 million, and in counties of highly erodible lands $5.8 million–four and two and a half times the national average respectively.  And particularly notable seems the expansion of conversions of either both wetlands and highly erosive lands (framed in violet), or either wetlands (framed in sky blue) or erosive lands (framed in light green) both in Montana, upstate and western New York state, Texas and in northern California, suggesting a diffusion of bad practices of land-reclamation at much cost.

Raw_Idem_Map_revised

Farming Subsidized Corn

7.  How much does this actually cost the government?  And is this level of investment and subsidization financially sustainable?  If one filters data and divides subsidies per inhabitant of rural regions,  the largest six programs of USDA funds pump debt to diminished rural populations at astounding rates; if farming remains less profitable, it has gained and retained legislators’ ears for continued support for subsidizing crops as corn in areas of low population–dominated by agribusiness.

Federal Agriculture Subsidies

 

 

Despite the typo, the map displays an astounding concentration of relative farm dollars in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska–as  Kansas, the southernmost state shown in the below map of subsidized farms in local counties, and bright blue Montana in the upper left.

 

CENTRAL US FARM SUBSIDIES

 

The limited profitability in many of the very same regions–and indeed the focus of profitability only in states of the corn belt such as Iowa–suggest the deep economic constraints about such macroeconomic policies, and the limited success of farm income in many of the same regions in 2005–even as governments have shifted their investments to larger farms–with under 30 percent of farms receiving commodity program payments in a typical years.  Indeed, the shift in the allocation of funds to farms with higher incomes and higher-income households has encouraged commodity-related programs–like grain sorghum, wheat, oats, or soybeans–that are removed from real food needs, and creates a picture of radical imbalance for the smaller farm, privileging “high value crops” in a macroeconomic sense, in ways that were often removed from actual farm income in many regions outside of Iowa, Nebraska and select parts of Missouri and Texas in this map of 2005.

CropSubsidyMap

The shift to larger farms whose incomes actually far exceed average household income in recent decades created a new dynamic of regional and rural investment that has privileged a food trade removed from local needs or a variety of foods, and considerably increased the percentage of non-family farms in ways that seem poised to increase over future decades.

shift to larger farms

Are the results even profitable?  The level of indemnity is striking.  There is not only considerable variation in crop indemnity nationwide, but evident intensity in regions of greatest population loss that are relatively removed from metro centers:

INdemnities as of 2010

 

The patchwork strip of heavy indemnities of over $10 million per county, designated in dark brown, that run across the center of the country in 2010 (and are particularly concentrated in North Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas–all big foci of federal farm expenditures) raises question of the allocation of farm dollars in any Farm Bill, and indeed how to encourage local best practices with federal policies.  Can such levels of indemnity be fiscally justified as a food policy?

 

Indemnities of over 10 Million:county

How do they indeed distort the sort of food policy that the government might want to encourage?  The question of best managing the balances of investment in the continued productivity of farmlands may have been too long framed in macroeconomic terms removed from local markets or best food practices–farm dollars being dedicated to the production of grains not destined to be consumed by human mouths, and whose cultivation imposes increasing costs for limited exchange value.  Are these losses concealed in most maps of investment, and what sort of image of crop production do they effectively produce?

Some of the same states are highlighted in the below, more detailed, map of such direct and counter-cyclical payments–those payments that depend on weather changes or currency fluctuations, rather than cycles of agriculture–emerge in the recent he Farm Program Atlas, mapped for the USDA by Anne Effland, Vince Breneman, David Nulph, and Erik O’Donoghue, mapping variations in the dollars received by local farms in 2009.  (The atlas will be completed through 2012, but this map provides an initial snapshot of where the money goes, county by county.)  It offers  a baseline of a picture of the benefits that the seven largest USDA programs give the nation’s farmers that is likely to be a touchstone in future debates.

 

DCS map USDA

 

The fluctuations charted respond to global markets and profits on crops, now removed from the calculus of local, regional, or national needs.  Given that in 2009 corn and soybean prices were extraordinarily high–too high to trigger counter-cyclical payments as well as the direct–they offer an image of direct crop payments.  And the image of direct cropland payments per acre is not in fact drastically different or distinct in its complexion, if it lightens the amount expended in the Northwest, Kansas, and Nebraska:

 

Direct Payments per Cropland Acre

(If one were to look only at the counter-cyclical payments for that year, however, the rise in prices would make most monies appear devoted to the South for that specific year:

Countercyclical Payments 2009

 

The different image that this provides of dollars spent in the Southland, however, is effectively a distorting mirror of the continued monies that flow to the acreage in the corn belt and across the midwest.)

If one charts the picture of the proportions of base acreage receiving either direct or counter-cyclical investment in farm dollars, a similar clustering of density emerges specific to the Midwest that suggests the remove of crops either from centers of population–metros–or areas of dense population–and even something of a marked inverse relation to population density:

 

DCP--Acreage

 

The below map breaks down variations among individual counties that received dollars in ways that offer something of a mosaic not only of government investment, but a map of the competing interests that defined the future of our land use in states as of great population loss–and increased allocation of dollars/person–like Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas, suggesting considerable local variations perhaps based on local agitation.

 

Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas

What this means is not only an increased investment in large agribusiness, but a skewing of investments to areas removed from urban populations in the mosaic of those areas where federal farm dollars are received, and over $700/person of farm subsidies arrive yearly.

Which Counties Get Subsidies?

It is the underside, as it were, of increasing “over-specialization” in agricultural production and in the agrarian landscape–and the divorce of that landscape from our changing national foodscape, whose disproportional warping over the years has been described and charted by William Rankin with visual eloquence, revealing in five colors the recent expansion of monocrops in corn (orange), wheat (green) and soybeans (red), destined for agrarian feed at considerable expense both as an investment and a use of land.  Local economies, such as they exist, are sustained by agribusiness–the largest property owners in many of these states, who privilege a uniformity of crop.

8.  The most dangerous implication of this mis-managed mapping of federal investment may lie in the removal of local needs from a sense of what crops are being encouraged or discouraged by the USDA, creating distorted foodscapes evident in how the below map of William Rankin clearly reveals the disproportionate amount of farm dollars dedicated to specific crops–and to practices of monoculture–that are most often removed not only from the food needs of urban areas or urban poor, but run against both good agricultural practices of local variation and environmental health.

crops2007_big

And just to focus on the monolithic intensity of Soybean and Silage in one area, one can see how little of the per capita funds spent by the USDA on agricultural acreage actually reaches the tables of Americans, or might contribute to their dietary health.
red crops

US Government data, relatively recently released, provides a shockingly similar distribution of funds picture of roughly the same area received in subsidies, as of July 11, 2012:

USDA--as of July 11, 2012

 

9.  The dramatically lopsided geographical distribution that results among farmers’ markets across the nation–those ever-present upbeat small-scale micro-economies of the food trade–is no surprise:  even when providing the select with “fresher” food, such markets are removed from very centers where those subsidies arrive–the inaccessibility of those markets in the major metros to folks on SNAP programs (or food stamps that the farm bill guarantees) is no surprise because it is a sort of niche agriculture in an age of the homogenization of crops, and the withdrawal of industrial agriculture from produce:

 

v6SNAP_FoodAtlas

For organic farms largely spread to areas located outside the most intensively farmed acreage in the US by 2007.

Where have the organic farms gone?  Outside of the corn belt, in part, although the clearly cluster in many areas of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana and Iowa, but often in the Northeast, Northwest, and Central Valley of California, the great producer of nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Acres:Organic Farming Prodcution 2007

What happens to larger markets of food when areas of the concentration of fruits such California’s Central Valley face sudden drought?  Just stay tuned.  It’s most likely coming to a food-stand near you.the USDA’s Economic Research Service, using data from the Agricultural Research Management Survey

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