On the long list of careers at which I know I would fail miserably, farmer is near the top, right next to schoolteacher, personal trainer and anything involving dead bodies. Farming requires more than an extraordinary work ethic, a high tolerance for early-morning hours and physical exertion, and a certain resilience when it comes to the smell of poop. It calls for a stoic acquiescence to the whims of the universe, which has the power to make or break a farmer’s very livelihood with one infestation, one storm or one drought. Certainly everyone contends with the uncontrollable—to do so is in some way to be human—but farmers do it more than most. Their business is with the planet, and their job is to impose ritual on its otherwise unfettered chaos.
To cede control to the capricious nature of…nature is an inevitable facet of agricultural life, up there with muddy boots and waking up before bars have even closed in New York. But the sacrifice is, theoretically, in pursuit of a greater good, of an American dream that has less to do with big houses and nice things and more to do with living off the land, with owning something and using that something to generate something, not just wealth.
America has a long history of attempting to level the playing field for farmers, with subsidies and regulations intended to limit the volatility wrought by both mother earth and the free market, equally fickle bitches. But perils persist: In 2012, the median farm income was negative $1,453. You read that right: Half of farmers are losing more than $1,453 a year. It’s no wonder that they commit suicide at a rate just under two times that of the general population. One need look no further than the produce—and now meat—sections at Walmart to understand that food has become Big Food, and where Big ___ goes, the slow suffocation of the average employee follows.
Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket is concerned with only a microcosm of a microcosm of the food business as a whole: The book focuses on the genesis of the now-ubiquitous Tyson Foods, a company that currently raises 1 of every 5 chickens eaten in the United States. But while Tyson is just one company, and chicken (plus, as Tyson expands, beef and pork) are just one agricultural sector, the Tyson story could and does easily stand in for the plight of farmers as a whole. TMR is a maddening, soul-sucking tour through the influence of big business, and the bumbling complicity of government and regulators in the endless conglomeration of the American private sector.