Now that farmers have gotten big or gotten out, it’s up to alternative farmers
In “Dispatches From the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.
Since the early 1970s, if not before, U.S. farm policy has hinged on the mantra, “get big or get out.”
Larry Bee got big. He currently farms 5,000 acres in North Central Iowa and produces over 600,000 bushels of corn and about 90,000 bushels of soybeans. To do the work, he owns a fleet on farm machinery big enough to make any gear nerd swoon — three 64-foot cultivators, a 90-foot sprayer (with a 1,600 gallon tank), a couple of 12-row combines, and at least one of those tractors with four rear tires. And three semis to haul just-under-1,000-bushel loads of corn to the ethanol plant when the price is right.
To be successful at the “get big” strategy, the secret is to keep getting bigger, which inevitably means buying up more acres, buying bigger farm machinery every year or two, and upgrading farm implements, equipment, and inputs.
This year, Larry built a new addition to his grain elevator complex 200 feet from his house — a 200,000-bushel grain bin. If that means nothing to you, just know that that is a big bin — most of the grain bins at the town grain elevators around these parts have a 90,000-bushel capacity. He and his wife are looking forward to this year’s Farm Progress Show, where they will see the latest in farm machinery toys and gadgets in action.
The not-so-secret secrets behind Larry’s success are the incentives in U.S.’s farm policies that have enabled farm consolidation and the growth of high-input, capital-intensive mono-crop production by paying farmers to produce large quantities of a handful of crops on as many acres as they can afford. Those policies get a gold star for making the big farmers bigger and weeding out everyone else but the “hobby” farmers (who have an occupation other than farming).
And as farm country has been hollowed out to make room for ever-bigger operations, grassroots opposition to U.S. farm policy has literally been uprooted.
As indicated in a report by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, the number of farms making $10,000-$249,999 in sales between 1982 and 2002 has steadily decreased, while the number of farms making more than $250,000 has increased significantly.
Between 1997 and 2002, the percent change of farms making $5,000,000 or more was 42 percent. The typical acres per farm harvested for corn jumped from 200 in 1982 to 450 in 2002. And just to be clear about the take-home point: large-scale family and non-family farms accounted for 9.7 percent of farms while contributing 75.4 percent of the value of production in 2004; fewer, larger farmers like Larry are responsible for ever more crop production and the number of mid-sized family farms has gone through the floor.
Why should we care about the loss of what has come to be called the “agriculture of the middle,” the mid-sized family farms that were once the backbone of the farm economy? In short, because we lost the grassroots base for action on federal farm policy.
At the recent 20th anniversary celebration of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Chuck Hassebrook, the executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs, described the tension around agriculture and the opportunity for organizing in rural America during the farm crisis of the 1980s. He and others who became the founders and leaders of organizations such as the Land Stewardship Project, the Minnesota Project, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, the Center for Rural Affairs, and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition could pack auditoriums, churches, and meeting halls with farmers engaged and ready to take political action because the threat of losing the farm felt imminent.
As the farm crisis took hold, policy change could not happen fast enough to stop or reverse the heavy bleeding of farmers out of America’s heartland. (Nor, one could argue, was there the political will to keep the mid-sized family farmers on the land.) Farmers lost the farm and left Rural America, and with them went the voice of opposition to farm policies that rewarded the consolidation, monoculturization, and corporatization of agriculture.
The 1990s farm policies saw significant gains for conservation programs, organic agriculture, and sustainable agriculture research programs. But the incentives to support the get-big approach to farming continued in full force, giving big ag the money to continue to squash any movements to an alternative on a large-scale.
The alternative, sustainable farmers found ways to persist and are out there, working hard (often times Farming in the Dark) to grow and sell their products in a system where the cards are stacked so heavily against them. They run Community Supported Agriculture operations, or sell to local farmers markets, restaurants, and co-ops. Despite their successes in these local food systems, they cannot be the only ones to carry a national grassroots movement for change in farm (and food) policy
While they are growing in number with the increased interest in alternative food, there are not enough of them to fill public meeting spaces like the farmers did back in the 1980s.
It is time to make up the difference in the number of bodies at those public meetings with consumers inspired by the likes of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Carlo Petrini. It’s time to move the consumer beyond the “vote with your fork” strategy that, while creating an alternative food system for those who can afford it, will not engage the very policies that have made the Larry Bees of the world and the conventional system of agriculture successful.
It is time to move on to the “vote with fork, but also with your feet and your vote” strategy that views our broken food and farm system as the result of decisions made by our elected representatives who must in the future make decisions in the interest of a new grassroots base of sustainable farmers and consumers.
To really challenge input-intensive agriculture will require active political organizing by a broad-based farmer-consumer coalition.