W. Kamau Bell: What an Oklahoma rancher wants you to know about America's broken food supply system

Updated 12:57 PM ET, Fri April 24, 2020

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W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian who is the host and executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning CNN Original Series "United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell." The views expressed here are his; read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)I first met Scott Blubaugh, the president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union, last year when I was filming an episode on family farms for this summer's season of "United Shades of America." There's a lot of talk in this country of farmers as the backbone of America, and we were trying to separate the facts from the pickup truck commercial.

Scott and his family own the Blubaugh Angus Ranch in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, a town of just over 3,000 people. While cattle is their primary business, they also grow several crops, including wheat and soybeans. The farm has been in Scott's family for six generations; it is the classic tale of an American farm passed down from father to son again, and again, and way more agains.
In fact, his son Zane is preparing to take it over. But currently, it's in Scott's hands. Every early frost; every drop in price for his crops; every politician's promise that doesn't deliver; every stud bull that doesn't want to stud ... it's all on him. Scott has the easy manner of a person who has the weight of the world on his shoulders but wouldn't have it any other way.
Scott Blubaugh (left) and W. Kamau Bell during filming for "United Shades of America."
There's another classic part of this story -- but it's one that Americans don't like to discuss as much. We often like to think of farming as a local enterprise, but as Scott explained to me, it is really an international business. And worse, he said, the farmers who grow the commodities for the processors don't set their own prices for what they grow. This allows the processors and the corporate farms to maximize their profits, while independent family farms like Scott's struggle.
On a normal day, that would be an interesting story to tell. But we all know that because of Covid-19, for the foreseeable future, "normal days" are behind us. And the issues farmers face during this pandemic put a huge spotlight on what is wrong with the way our country handles food production and distribution.
I wanted to know how these issues were affecting farmers like Scott, so I checked in with him via a (Zoom) video call.
    The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
    W. Kamau Bell: Before we get started Scott, just how are you doing?
    Scott: We're doing fine. Our health in our family has been good. We're quarantined like everybody else around the country, but it's a little different because we still get out to feed the cows, birth the calves, plant the crops, and do everything. It's just you don't see anybody else. It's kind of a lonely time right now for us.
    WKB: There's a lot of news focused on major cities; I think there's not enough talk about what's going on in places like where you are, where it's pretty rural, right?
    Scott: Yeah, it's very rural here, it's sparsely populated. So it probably helps a little bit with the virus, because we're naturally far apart. The biggest thing is the food system and our markets, how they're being affected and how the supply of food, even in the grocery stores here, is limited.
    In many cases, they've run out of beef, they've run out of milk, bread, eggs -- all the things that you're having trouble seeing on supermarket shelves in the big cities, we're also seeing that very same thing out here in rural areas because it's really the way the structure of our food system is today.
    WKB: Yeah, when I was with you, you educated me to the idea that you're not really creating food, you're creating commodities.
    Scott: We have plenty of cattle, pigs, chickens, wheat, corn, soy beans. The problem that we're seeing right now is the processing industry has consolidated at a tremendous rate over the last 40 years.
      So while we have plenty of commodities out here on the farm, when the processors' workers get sick and they're not able to come to work, we're seeing these plants close down that process the food. Then you can't get the shelves restocked. The virus has really exposed the flaws of our food system, and how vulnerable it is.
      We don't have big food reserves. People might think we do, but we don't. Here in my hometown, they limit milk to a one gallon purchase per customer. Bread, it's one loaf per customer.
      We're rationing those food products, and at the same time