The discussion on American agriculture is evolving every day, and as a result, agribusiness has been stoking a backlash against those pushing for a change in how we grow our food. Notably, Michael Pollan has been a target at recent university speaking engagements; a few weeks ago at Cal-Poly, when a feedlot owner threatened to rescind a donation if Pollan was allowed to speak solo, the university caved, making his talk a part of a panel discussion. This is all an indication that the conversation on fixing our broken food system is gaining traction, as the discussion grows more nuanced, more solutions-oriented and more threatening to the status quo.
Last month in New York, Lisa Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, hosted just such a nuanced discussion on the current state of agriculture featuring Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times writer whose column is called “The Rural Life,” farmer Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and farmer Mary Howell Martens, who grows 1400 acres of organic corn, beans and other grains with her husband and three children in Penn Yan, New York.
The panel focused on assessing the situation farmers are now caught in, and discussed solutions, including focusing on improving the foodshed, rebuilding rural communities and strengthening “ag in the middle” through trade partnerships.
Hamilton began the talk by telling a story about an opinion piece she wrote that ended up in both rural newspapers and on various progressive outlets, including Civil Eats. She thought this was telling, because it showed that both rural and urban dwellers have an interest in redefining what it means to be a farmer, and bringing back a human scale to agriculture. Here is a quote from Hamilton’s piece from last May:
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.
She defined a farmer as “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.” While the amount of small farms (1-49 acres) grew by about 100,000 between 2002-2007 according to the most recent ag census, medium-sized farms, most of which fit her description, have suffered, while the largest farms (with more than 2000 acres) have continued to grow. Martens brought this point home by talking about the crisis her medium-sized farm faced in 1993 when she realized that “500 acres of conventional crops cannot support a family financially.”
Martens also spoke about the dairy crisis as emblematic of the deeper problems facing our food system, in which the quest for slight increases in margins by numerous farmers has led to overproduction and then collapse. This happened in the dairy sector through the use of “sexed semen” which has increased dramatically the amount of female cows online to milk, and the use of rGBH, a growth hormone, which increases production (with risks to the health of the cow and the public). “We are sort of on the threshold of a major change, if we do this wisely, or a collapse if we don’t do it wisely,” she said.
Kirschenmann gave some historical perspective, describing how farming was the last place where the principles of industrialization (specialization, simplification and economies of scale) were applied, and unsuccessfully, as we are now seeing a strain on resources that cannot continue into the future. He described infrastructure as a key to getting farmers out of this broken system. Right now, they are not able to grow other crops because there is no market; elevators in Iowa are only prepared to buy corn and soy. He suggested a new model of localism, revaluing the foodshed around towns and cities, and he encouraged farmers to band together and create cooperative structures and share technology, so that they all benefit from access to new markets. We must move away from a discussion of “black hats and white hats,” he said, referring to passing judgment on farmers who choose GM seed or chemical agriculture. “Conventional farmers’ backs are against the wall,” he said, adding that they, too, are “looking for alternatives to expensive inputs.”
Klinkenborg spoke about extending the conversation to places like Iowa, stating that we should ask ourselves, “not how broad we can make local, but how personal we can make it.” He reminded us that the decrease in social and biological complexity in rural America was not the natural fulfillment of the free market operating, but instead a purposeful chain of events leading to such a consequence. As a result, he said, farmers have fewer and fewer choices about what they can grow. He cited his cousins, who grow GM corn and soy in Iowa, and saw the decision to change seeds as an attempt to increase yields, and thus margins. This comparison paralleled Martens’ dairy example, but issues of pricing with commodity crops are often masked by subsidies.
Martens and her husband, Claas, are great examples of how, beyond the land, farmers can also be stewards of the community. In reaching out to their neighbors, they have shown many of them a way out of the trap of chemical-based agriculture and helped them to transition to organic. “We need to bring back the sense that farmers have some control over [the choices they can make on their land]” she said.
For a taste of the discussion, check out this short video produced by Wicked Delicate co-conspirator and Civil Eats contributor Curt Ellis: