Sustainable Connections: The Family Farm

Choosing People Over Profit

I am a small scale sustainable farmer, a modern day renegade. Like other small family farmers, I work in the field an average of 12 hours a day. On any given day at the farm you will find me covered head to toe in dirt, sweat, bug bites, bruises and on occasion a few tears. The agriculture industry is beyond competitive and the unpredictable weather patterns can be brutal. Yet, day after day, I make a choice to continue my farming journey. The family farm is far from a lucrative business. Small sustainable farmers don’t receive corporate bonuses or retirement plans. We don’t receive a paid health care premium each month nor do we enjoy a window office with air conditioning and heat. Each passing season brings new challenges and possibilities. When asked “why did I become a farmer? My response will always be the same: I am passionate about our planet’s health, human wellness, social and food justice and my community. And while it seems our biodynamic farm and the handful of other small, sustainable family farms in Lake and Sumter counties are a rarity, that wasn’t the case not so long ago.

The roots of most American rural communities are in agriculture. The land that is now the United States, was a land of great natural wealth. Some of that wealth was in minerals and timber, but most of it lay in vast plains and winding valleys of fertile farmland. However, it took people to transform this wealth into well-being. People had to clear the land and till the soil to bring forth the bounty of food and fiber from the fertile fields. It took people to care for the cattle and sheep that grazed the vast plains. And as these people — these farmers and ranchers — achieved surpluses beyond their own needs, they came to need other people in towns and rural communities. They needed people with whom they could trade their surpluses for the things they couldn’t produce.

At the turn of the 20th century, America was still an agrarian country – about 40 percent of its people were farmers and well over half lived in very rural areas. But, then came the second phase of the industrial revolution and the need to collect large numbers of people into cities to “man” the large factories and offices of a growing manufacturing economy. The simultaneous industrialization of agriculture – mechanization, specialization, routinization, — made it possible for fewer farmers to feed more people better — “freeing” farmers and other rural people to find work in the cities.

The same technologies that pulled rural people toward the cities pushed them off the farms and out of rural communities. These technologies increased production per person by substituting capital and generic knowledge for labor and individual management. As successful new farming technologies were developed, they invariably reduced production costs — per bushel or per pound of production — but only if each farmer produced more. Thus, the incentive to realize greater profits by reducing costs was inherently an incentive to buy bigger equipment and more commercial inputs in order to farm more land and produce more output. As farmers individually responded to these incentives, production in total invariably expanded, market prices fell, and the promise of continuing profits vanished. The new technologies were now necessary – no longer for profits but now for survival. Those who adopted and expanded too little too late were unable to compete. They were “freed” from their farms to find a job in the city.

Farms were forced to get larger and larger just to survive. In fact, with a limited population to feed and a limited amount of land to farm, fewer and fewer farmers could possibly survive. In addition, large specialized farms often had to bypass the local community in purchasing inputs and marketing their products in order to remain competitive with other large farms. Their competitors were not down the road or across the country, but might be half way around the world.

Today, America is no longer an agrarian nation. Less that 2 percent of Americans call themselves farmers and even those earn more than half of their income off the farm. Somewhere around 25 percent of the people live in non-metropolitan areas – but many if not most commute to a city to work. There are few people left in farming communities to move to town and no longer any social benefit in moving them. Industries are “downsizing” and “outsourcing” — laying off workers by the thousands. As consumers we spend on the average a little over a dime out of each dollar for food and the farmer only gets a penny of that dime. The rest goes to pay for commercial inputs and marketing services – packaging, advertising, transportation, etc. Society no longer has anything to gain from further industrialization of agriculture, but yet it continues. And rural communities in farming areas continue to wither and die.

Feeling the stress of an industrializing society, many small towns turned to industrial recruitment – trying to become a city rather than a town – as a means of survival. Others have tried to capture natural advantages in climate or landscapes to become destinations for tourists from the cities. Those near the growing industrial centers “rented out their communities” as bedrooms for those who are willing to commute to the city. But, most rural communities in agricultural areas have not been successful in their efforts to regain prosperity – or even to survive. Most rural communities have become and remain places in search of a purpose.

As capital requirements continue to grow, a corporate share-holding organizational structure will be required to finance agricultural enterprises. Giant corporate entities already control the processing and distribution sectors for most agricultural commodities. As corporations gain control of agricultural production – through outright ownership or through contractual arrangements with individual producers — those who refuse to contract will find they have no markets for their products. The surviving “farmers” will, in fact, become corporate “hired hands.” Thus, there is no future in farming – as long as the only options farmers are given are to get big, give in, or get out.

The publicly stated justifications for the demise of farming will be to “ensure that the public continues to have an adequate supply of safe and healthful food at a reasonable price” – the same as the oft-stated justification for the industrialization of agriculture. However, the true motivation for the corporate take-over of agriculture is pure economic power. Those corporations that have been able to gain control of significant sectors of agriculture have been able to reap large profits in return, while the health of our planet and human population suffer. If a handful of corporations gain control of the global food supply – they will have more economic power than has ever been seen. It is a prize they are willing to pursue at any risk.

When there is no longer any economic justification for bigness, there will no longer be any economic justification for corporations. The only societal motivation for chartering corporations was to make it easier to raise the capital necessary to finance enterprises larger than could be financed by individuals or partnerships of investors. Corporations have been subsidized by various means, providing additional incentives for businesses to become larger, under the assumption that larger organizations would be more efficient, and would pass along their cost savings to consumers. There are serious questions concerning whether corporations today serve any positive public purpose – even in cases where large operations might be more cost efficient. In an era where “smaller is better,” corporations will have lost even their original claim to special treatment. Corporations exist only at the consent of the people — the public granted their original charters, and the public can revoke those charters. The practical question for the future is whether corporations have gained so much political power that they may continue to exist, and even be subsidized, long after they have lost any societal purpose for being. But once they have lost their purpose, the era of corporations eventually will come to an end – regardless of their political power at the present.

The Shift:

People are abandoning the cities for the suburbs for quality of life reasons: lower crime rates, quality housing at a lower cost, and recreational opportunities. Many people are now free to abandon the suburbs for rural area for quality of life reasons as well: more living space, a cleaner environment, prettier landscapes, and, perhaps most important, for a place to regain a sense of community, a sense of belonging.

Many knowledge workers, while working alone or in small groups, are choosing not to face the world alone but rather are seeking community — the free association among people. Large business organizations, government bureaucracies, labor unions, and other collectives have provided hiding places to avoid responsibility. In a community there is no place to hide. Everyone knows who is contributing and who is not. In communities, individual differences are recognized and rewarded. Enlightened individuals may well choose to restore a sense of community — all but destroyed by corporate industrialism. These people are not looking for a place to hide but rather for a place to be recognized — a place to belong.

A new post-industrial paradigm for American agriculture is already emerging to replace the industrial model of agriculture. The new paradigm is emerging under the conceptual umbrella of sustainable agriculture. A sustainable agriculture must meet the needs of the current generation while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of future generations. To achieve sustainability, farming systems must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. All are necessary and none alone or in pairs is sufficient. Sustainable agriculture cannot be defined as a set of farming practices or methods, but instead must be defined in terms of its purpose – sustaining people across generations through agriculture — and the ecological, economic, and social principles that must be followed in achieving that purpose.

The sustainable agriculture paradigm has emerged to address the problems created by the industrial model, primarily pollution of the natural environment and degradation of the natural resource base. This new paradigm seems capable also of creating benefits that are inherently incompatible with the industrial model — such as greater individual creativity, greater dignity of work, and more attention to issues of social equity. It is conceivable that industrial agricultural systems might be developed that appear to be both profitable and ecologically sound – at least in the short run. But, industrial systems inherently degrade the human resources – the people they employ – they simply cannot meet the sustainability test for social responsibility.

A New Generation of Family Farms: Sustainable Agriculture Pioneers

It will take knowledge, “mind work,” not physical or economic muscle, for farmers of the future to find a niche where they carry out farming by means that are ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. Seeds of hope lie in America’s family farmers despite the grim economic conditions facing the nation. A frequently overlooked source of economic development and job creation, these producers are standing on the cutting edge of flourishing local and regional food systems that are sustaining economies, nourishing communities and creating a strong foundation for a stable and prosperous future. In a time when we risk losing tens of thousands of family farmers from our land, protecting and fostering their potential and properly investing in local and regional food system development offers our nation a sound path forward. People over profit.

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