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SOUT H ERN RURAL SOCIOLOGY, 24(2), 2009, pp. 169–191.

Copyright © by the Southern Rural Sociological Association







The Missouri School has been known for its study of the structure of agriculture and food, and what affects structural arrangements have on farmers, communities, and environments. A lesser known aspect of the Missouri School is its use of structural analyses to analyze and promote alternatives. As a participant observer of the Kansas City food system for more than 15 years, I highlight the continual evolution of alternatives in the region, documenting the long involvement of the Missouri School with the development of these alternatives, from providing structural analyses to extension programming. This case study shows the struggle that farmers, consumers and communities undergo as they seek to create sustainable food and agriculture alternatives within existing political, social and economic structures, concluding that everyday praxis can create and enlarge spaces for transformative food systems. However, the struggle for full realization of social change happens fitfully with no guarantee of success.

In the last 30 years, the sociology of agriculture and food has had two primary strands of research and analysis, which have lately begun to twine together. In the 1970s-1990s, examining the structural arrangements of the agriculture and food system, and the resulting impacts on labor, farmers and rural development was a dominant theme in the sociology of food and agriculture in the U.S. (Bonanno et al.

1994; Friedland, 1984; Friedmann and McMichael 1989; Goodman and Redclift 1991; Heffernan and Constance 1994). Understanding agency by many different actors in the food system was thriving in some European analyses (Long and Long 1992). In the past decade or more, these strands have intertwined both in the U.S.

and other places (see Goodman and DuPuis 2002; Wilkinson 2006). As Marsden and Murdoch (2006) highlight in their edited book, Between the Local and the Global, the complexities of global processes and how they are played out at the local level provide some of the richest and most exciting areas for study in the sociology of agriculture and food.

The Missouri School has been positioned right in the middle of this debate and scholarship. Known in the literature for its examination of agrifood structure, * Direct correspondence to: Mary Hendrickson, Ph.D., Department of Rural Sociology, University

of Missouri, 200 Gentry Hall, Columbia, MO 65211, Telephone: 573-882-7463, Email:


169 170

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particularly in the analysis of firms, their power and their strategies (Bonanno and Constance 2000, 2006; Heffernan 1998; Heffernan, Hendrickson, and Gronski 1999), it is less well-known for its attention to agency and interaction with advocates from across what Stevenson et al. (2008) call the Warrior, Builder, Weaver spectrum.

From the beginning, Bill Heffernan and colleagues at the University of Missouri (particularly institutional economists like Harold Briemyer [1965]) were interested in how the structure of agriculture affected communities (e.g., the focus of Heffernan’s [1972, 1984] classic studies of the broiler industry in Louisiana). In the 1980s Farm Crisis, Bill and Judy Heffernan were deeply involved in helping farmers and rural communities deal with the impacts of structural change in agriculture, particularly by providing a framework for understanding market concentration and consolidation that helped farmers see beyond their individual situations (and their perceived failures) to the larger changes taking place. In the 1990s, Doug Constance’s involvement with rural resistance to changes in the hog production system, including the siting of large confined animal feed operations, garnered consternation and accompanying restrictions from University administrators (Constance, Kleiner, and Rikoon 2003). Simultaneously, the Heffernans, Constance, Alessandro Bonanno, economist John Ikerd, and others at Missouri maintained a healthy interest (both academically and pragmatically) in emerging alternatives such as sustainable and organic agriculture and the impacts such alternatives could have on farmers, communities, and environments (for examples see Albee, Rikoon, and Gilles 1996; Ikerd 1993; Ikerd et al. 1996; Seipel and Heffernan 1997).

My own work over the past fifteen years has been steeped in both the structural analysis that the Missouri School is known for, as well as the pragmatic extension approaches we have used to help create sustainable agriculture and community food systems alternatives.1 In this paper, I will show how the very examination of 1 As I write this paper, I have struggled with the use of “I” and “we” both to represent who was involved and to provide clarity for the reader. In discussions of the Missouri School, “we” refers to the collectivity— the graduate students who are now at other institutions or organizations, the current and former faculty, the colleagues who helped shape ideas at Missouri. W hen I use “we” with extension programming, or work with farmer groups, it almost always refers to the work and ideas of Bill Heffernan and me, although both Judy Heffernan and Doug Constance were an important part of extension/outreach in the 1980s and 1990s. In the discussion of alternatives in Kansas City, the “we” becomes a group of actors changing the food system in Kansas City. It is difficult for me to use the pronoun “I” in describing work and ideas that are interconnected and intertwined with the knowledge and insights of all members of the Missouri School. Moreover, I consider the work that I do in Kansas City to be part of a larger collective effort seeking to change the food system and the pronoun “I” is too puny to represent such work.


structural arrangements in food and agriculture has been used to analyze and promote food system alternatives across the state of Missouri. With the Kansas City food system, Bill Heffernan and I have used our special “standpoint” as land grant university researchers and extension educators working in a particular locale to explicate the ideals and realities of transformative food system movements. The first part of the paper reviews the structural analysis of firms, for which the Missouri School is well-known, as well as the introduction of a framework for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of dominant food systems versus emerging alternatives. The second half of the paper is concentrated on telling the story of the emerging alternative food system in Kansas City from the standpoint of a participant observer. As the reader will see, a strong local food system is emerging in the region, but one that remains flawed and small compared with the conventional system. This narrative of food system alternatives highlights the agency that actors have used to both challenge and change the global food system in the Kansas City region.


As the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology (2008) makes clear in its analysis of agriculture and food around the world, business as usual is not an option in agriculture if we are to secure sustainable livelihoods and food security around the globe. Of course, these are not new ideas to those involved in the sociology of agriculture and food, which has often concluded that the structural arrangements in the agrifood system have negatively affected life chances of people around the globe. One of the Missouri School’s contributions has been to illustrate the size and scope of the corporations involved in this global food system and to help understand their strategies. In the mid-1980s, Bill Heffernan and Doug Constance began tracking the share of the market of the top four companies in various Midwestern commodities, producing “CR4 Tables” for distribution.2 Current CR4s are represented in Table 1, and are available at http://www.foodcircles.missouri.edu/consol.htm.

2 CR4 is concentration ratio of the top four firms in a particular market. If 40 percent or more of a particular market is controlled by four or fewer firms, that market acts like a monopolistic one. From small group theory, it is well-known that actors will base their own actions off the actions of the others in the group without any collusion. Extending this to the monopolistic markets means that dominant firms know what their competitors are doing simply by observation and not by collusion, a key necessity to prove violation of current anti-trust laws (Heffernan, 1998; Heffernan et al. 1999).


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By compiling secondary data available in trade journals and leading business newspapers, citizens, farmers and rural residents in particular could see the dominant players in the agrifood system and begin to understand their strategies and how that might affect their own businesses or circumstances. In the early days, the CR4 was more than 70 percent for soybean and beef processing, but for most commodities such as broilers, pork, flour milling, and food retailing, the CR4 was below 40 percent, indicating a competitive market. Over the years, all of the market sectors tracked have continued to concentrate market share. In fact, those that started with lower CR4s increased more rapidly than those with higher CR4s.

Today the CR4 for all of the major market sectors traced is more than 40 percent except ethanol, for which the CR4 has actually declined. The latest incarnation of this research was completed in April 2007 and is represented in the table above.

Simply reporting this data without providing a framework to understand it (e.g., USDA has begun providing data on CR4 ratios in many commodities but omits


company names) can disempower those who are directly affected. Members of the Missouri School offered a framework embedded in sociological theory for why this data mattered to farmers, consumers and rural communities. This helped citizens ask the important questions to distinguish between “what is” and “what could be.” Are these competitive markets? Who has the power to act if they are not competitive markets? How does this impact your life chances as a farmer, rural resident, farm worker or consumer? Agriculture and food groups have responded to this framework, and used the research in their advocacy efforts to improve their own situations (see Gronski in this volume).

Even with a framework embedded in critical theory, the analysis that we presented could often dishearten, and in a sense disempower, the very people we hoped could use it. The Heffernans challenged farmers and other audiences to understand that the agrifood structure they documented and explained was not the product of so-called “natural” market forces, but rather the outcomes of actions that powerful actors could take—it was humanly created, a very simple, but crucial concept. While some farmers and community members left presentations feeling the situation in agriculture and food was hopeless and were unable to engage in their own agency, others felt equipped to engage in “Warrior” work (Stevenson et al.

2008). For example, members of the Missouri Farmers Union have used the analysis to develop policies and extensive farmer networks focused on supporting the expansion of locally-grown food. By the early 1990s, members of the Missouri School began to use the accumulated knowledge from structural research as well as participation in sustainable agriculture initiatives and farm crisis advocacy to develop an outline of where alternatives can best position themselves. In Table 2, I present the idealized dichotomy of what Bill Heffernan and I call “Dominant Global Food System” and “Alternative Food Systems” to illustrate where the dominant food system has strengths and where weaknesses may exist.

Dominant Global Food Systems are represented by capital intensive, industrialized food systems that require vast synthetic inputs and are heavily reliant on fossil fuel. These are far-flung food systems that can source inputs from around the world wherever costs are cheapest, and sell into the highest-priced markets around the world (Heffernan and Constance 1994; McMichael 2007; Sanderson 1986). Alternative Food Systems are represented by the myriad of alternatives that have emerged that seek to balance the three legs of sustainability—economy, equity, and ecology. The Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Society program (2008) began calling these systems “Good Food,” to denote food that is healthy for people, 174 SOUTHERN RURAL SOCIOLOGY produced in sustainable ways, fair to farmers and workers, and affordable to all members of society.

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Flexibility and response speed.............. Weakness Strength Connect to consumers through personalized relationships............... Weakness Strength Providing organic, natural, humane, cage-free food

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