American farming is in a dismal condition. Decades after giant, polluting industries – paper, leather, chemicals and many hazardous substances – were either shut down or forced to clean up, we are left with giant, polluting farms.

Maine had numerous paper mills and tanneries that fouled the rivers and air of countless “mill towns,” and were famously restored by Sen. Ed Muskie’s Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Agriculture, however, has been nearly exempt from anti-pollution rules.

These landmark environmental laws target “point sources,” such as smokestacks, discharge pipes, and automobile tailpipes. They’re easy to see and measure, and hence to regulate.

Industrial farms, however, pollute with “non-point” sources – fertilizer runoff – that, collectively, have pushed nitrogen in the Great Lakes to levels not seen since before the Clean Water Act – pollution the Environmental Protection Agency has no mandate to control.

Starting in the Far West and Southeast, giant farming operations, often with generous federal support, have spread throughout the upper Midwest, with hog farms raising up to 10,000 sows, and numerous dairy farms milking 5,000 cows. At this scale, family farms are disappearing precipitously.

In Wisconsin, “America’s Dairyland,” where my people are from, half the dairy farms have shut down in a decade, falling from 14,000 to 7,000, as chronicled in a recent New Yorker issue. Production hasn’t declined; remaining farms are much larger.

Maine never produced anywhere near that much milk, and our dairy farms have fallen from 900 to about 250 over three decades. Organic milk remains an attractive option, outside the byzantine federal pricing system.

In Wisconsin, 90% of milk goes to cheese-making, and profits were decent until recently. Now, some of the richest agricultural land in the world supports fewer and fewer people; rural communities stagnate and die, as they have in Kansas and Nebraska.

Farm production has received federal support since the New Deal, but the contemporary U.S. Department of Agriculture is very different. Originally designed to keep farmers on the land, USDA subsidies now make mega-businesses bigger, while family farms fall farther behind.

The sea change occurred under Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture secretary. Butz was derided at the time for crude language, but he was instrumental in changing policy: “Get big, or get out” was his message.

For a time, farmers flourished as the decaying Soviet Union’s harvest failures drove up prices – though to the chagrin of American consumers. Food exports became a means of showing up the Russians.

Back home, the forces producing gigantism became overwhelming. Bigger is always better, if food prices stay low – ironic, given than even Wal-Mart has de-emphasized its slogan, “Always the low price.”

Low prices can incur high costs. Wisconsin’s Juneau County, rich with dairy farms, showed elevated nitrates on 65% of sampled sites. The stench from a densely packed 2,500-head herd can be overwhelming – though with fewer people, it’s less noticed.

There are political consequences, too. Donald Trump carried Wisconsin by a whisker in 2016, running up huge margins in rural farming counties.

It wasn’t just Hillary Clinton’s ineptitude – she made zero appearances in rural Wisconsin, with no TV ads until days before the election – but farmers’ disillusionment with both political parties.

Some dairy farmers figured a businessman in the White House might be more receptive, but they figured wrong.

Trump’s erratic trade wars prompted Canada to cut off agricultural imports and Mexico to slap tariffs on Wisconsin cheese – actions producing similarly disastrous repercussions for Maine lobster. Compensatory federal aid has been too little, too late.

In 2016, Maine saw similar electoral results to Wisconsin. Trump carried the 2nd Congressional District, even though Clinton routed him in the 1st – the first time Maine split its electoral votes.

A similar outcome is unlikely this time, yet the verdict in November will provide little guidance about farm policy, though virtually all agree farms need to produce healthier, tastier, more local food – even if it costs a bit more.

We might take a cue from Ed Muskie and start regulating agriculture with health, safety and environmental standards, and bring farm workers, finally, under the protection of wage-and-hour laws.

We can also provide incentives for soil conservation and environmental cleanups, instead of subsidizing ever-greater production. Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree has laudably boosted small farms, but nibbling around the edges isn’t enough: We need wholesale change.

Aldo Leopold lived and worked in Wisconsin’s “sand counties” in the early 20th century, and is revered for his prophetic “land ethic.” Of farming, he said we had a choice: A farm could be “a place-to-live,” or a “food factory.”

We need to confront that choice again, and this time make better decisions.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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