Growing a New Crop of Farmers

When the Agriculture Department released its 2007 census recently, the news appeared surprisingly good: For the first time since World War II, the United States did not lose farms, it gained them — 75,810, to be exact, for a total of 2.2 million.

But on closer inspection, the numbers aren’t so hopeful. The discrepancy stems from this tricky question: What is a farm? The census has changed its definition nine times since 1850, most recently to “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year.”

This loose definition is meant to err on the side of inclusion, but ultimately it just errs. Take, for example, the four chickens I keep in my back yard. I sometimes sell eggs to neighbors, and at the going rate I could make $500 a year. If I got four more hens, my suburban home could qualify as a farm.

Silly, right? But where do you place the lower limit — or the upper limit? The Cargill feedlot in Lockney, Texas, consists of 60,000 cattle kept in dirt yards and fattened on feed grown elsewhere. Is that a farm? While the census says yes, most Americans would say no.

So then, what is a farm? To answer that, we must first ask: Why do we care? Really, why is it good news when farms — and, more importantly, the farmers who run them — increase?

There are sentimental reasons, of course, but there is also a practical reason. Farmers are valuable because they bring human scale to our massive food system. Think of how many people, in the wake of each new salmonella scare, turn to the farmers market. We do so because we know that farmers bring oversight and ethics to food production, contributions that only individual humans can offer.

In the future, farmers’ importance will only grow. Their intimate, human-scale knowledge of the land is what will allow agriculture to adapt to climate change. And as the cheap energy that industrial agriculture depends on disappears, it is farmers, with their small-scale innovation and sheer manual labor, who will feed us. Why do we care about having more farmers? Because deep down we know they are essential to a functioning food system.

So I offer this new definition of a farmer: someone who grows crops in sufficient quantity to be a true commercial entity, yet is still close enough to the ground to bring human scale and values to the process. Not the backyard chicken enthusiast, nor the corporation behind the feedlot, but the individual human on the land, growing our food.

Revisit the census with this definition, and the good news vanishes. The USDA’s reported increases occurred exclusively in farms with yearly sales of less than $2,500 or more than $500,000 — that is, the backyard operations and the corporate-scale businesses. In every other category, the numbers dropped or, in one case, stayed the same. Between 2002 and 2007, the United States actually lost 43,603 real farms.

To stop this hemorrhaging, we must shift from blindly encouraging production to investing in a system that values farmers and propagates them. We need to help new farmers obtain markets, land and credit. And we must inspire nonfarmers to enter the profession. Imagine, for instance, a program that puts interns on farms — an AmeriCorps for agriculture. In this “AgriCorps,” participants would learn the skills of farming and experience the lifestyle; hosts would receive valuable labor to bolster their businesses.

Such a program would face an obvious objection: AmeriCorps offers volunteers to public service organizations, but most farms are private businesses. Why should the rest of us help support them?

But maybe we need to reconsider that line of thinking. By defining farms and farmers as purely economic entities, we condemn them to a system that inevitably eliminates them. What if instead we began to see farmers as the public servants they are, and enabled them to be the public servants we need: stewards of our soil and water, pillars of our rural communities, and guardians of our food. Perhaps by redefining what farms mean to us, we can help their numbers grow — this time, for real.

Photo: Lisa Hamilton, rancher David Evans, Marin Sun Farms, Point Reyes, CA

7 thoughts on “Growing a New Crop of Farmers

  1. What is wrong with inclusion? When I was a kid and reached more than $1,000 from agricultural sales on my products – I was thrilled and proud as hell to know I qualified as a farmer.

    By the way, the change to $1,000 minimum income was not all that recent – its been that way since before I was in high school, so at least 15 years.

    I feel like you’re article tries to suggest that large scale modern farming is the SOLE reason that small farmers have diminished. You are welcome to correct me if I am wrong about that.
    However, were you ever a farm kid growing up? Did you ever feel that passion in your gut and honest pride for the work you busted your butt doing every day? Only to go to school, and have other kids make fun of you because you’re clothes smelled a bit funny? Or because YOU were a farmer and that was one of the lowliest jobs that one could imagine?

    For many, the social influence was too much – and in all honesty is likely responsible for the huge decline of students going on to seek degrees in agriculture at our many land grant universities.

    Furthermore – many times those big feedlots you are scoffing at – are run by hard working Americans that by in large take very good care of the animals. They use scientifically proven diets to make sure the animal has the right combination of nutrients for healthy development. They consider themselves to be small farmers – and yes, because they have a contract to sell to Cargill – they may appear corporate, but deep down they are just the small farmer that so many of us want to be.

    Let us not forget that Americans have the CHEAPEST, MOST RELIABLE, SAFEST (despite any ecoli outbreaks), food supply in the WORLD. Nobody does it better than we do.

  2. Pingback: Redefining Farming | Vegan.com

  3. The barrier for most aspiring small farmers has got to be the cost of entry. When family farms were sold off to large scale farmers or when family farms were sold for developments, the ability of small farms to be passed on to other small farmers, either family or new owners, diminished. It is just very tough to get started these days. Amazingly, here in the post-industrial mid-west, the easiest place to start a small farm is in the city where one can piece together a small parcel for not too much money. You watch … it is the next big thing.

  4. Found this link on Twitter, and how you know about the UCSC Farm’s “Grow a Farmer” Campaign, raising funds to build permanent housing for the apprentices of their six-month residential program. (And it was I who came up with the name.)

    : D

    http://www.growafarmer.org

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  6. My family grew oranges in Fl and I did a lot of backbreaking work in the groves. I could not wait until I could get a job in a glass and steel building and wear a suit & tie to work. Careful what you wish for.

    I got back into farming but could only afford to rent land and soon discovered that improving someone’s farm was a losing proposition. So yes the cost of entry is a major problem.

    However if you look at the report you will find that most new farmers are women that have left corporate work to create a new lifestyle for themselves and their families. Most are small farms, the USDA definition of small is anyone grossing less that $250,000.00 annually.

    As for the claim that most people working on factory farms are “hard working American’s”; they maybe in the front office but poor Latin’s make up the work force doing the dirty work. The abuse of the farm animals and poorly paid workers remains a major problem for corporate Ag.

  7. The first purpose of agriculture should be to grow quality food, rather than strip-mine soil fertility for profit. Fertility in soils is simply the measure of the mineral nutrients stored in those soils. Under the present purely for profit paradigm, nutrients are mined out by the plant roots and then exported off the farm. When the soil has lost its reserves of Calcium to make strong bones and teeth, no amount of organic matter or NPK fertilization will bring it back, only adding Calcium to the soil can do that.

    The same is true for every other essential mineral nutrient, from Zinc the intelligence mineral to Selenium needed for proper immune function. If they have been mined out of the soil, or were never in the soil to begin with, the crops grown cannot contain them and will fail in the primary task of providing complete nutrition.

    The old saying about the weather is “Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it”. For over sixty years we have heard about our agricultural soils being mineral depleted. Why is it that so few have seen the obvious solution, add back the missing minerals?

    There is no worldwide shortage of any of them, they simply need to be moved around. Measure the mineral levels in the soil and supply the ones that are deficient. That simple step, along with creating a living soil, can turn any plot of worn-out dirt into a nutritional garden of Eden.

    Lots of information on how (and why) to do this is available free at http://www.soilminerals.com.