Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Why are Farmers an Endangered Species?

Guest writer: Andy Sarjahani of Living the Intense Dream

Wouldn’t it be easier to just get our food from the grocery store and not have a care in the world about where it came from, who it came from, or how it was raised? Of course it would! Ignorance is bliss, amen? There is quite a problem though – we are not ignorant. Upton Sinclair ushered in a new concept for Americans. We were rudely awakened from our bliss and thrust into a world of knowing - knowing that perhaps the food industry (or any other industry for that matter) doesn’t necessarily look out for the “consumer”. Yet we were simultaneously empowered to influence what is brought to our plates. We raised a ruckus and the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 were born.

It has been well documented by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture that our current methods of feeding ourselves are purely unsustainable. We are a society that demands evidence prior to implementation of any change. This is a reasonable request of course. My professional organization’s (American Dietetic Association) “Evidence Analysis Library” was basically established in an effort to provide all practicing Registered Dietitians with a compass for critical decisions in practice. Now it seems as if the evidence for a total paradigm shift in our food systems appears to be sprayed in neon-green across the wall.

The idea of “going local” (meaning purchasing what foods are possible locally) is quite admirable but should we do more? Is it truly enough to simply swing by the Farmer’s Market in the Prius to throw some arugula, heirloom tomatoes, fresh eggs, and maybe a leg of lamb into our cloth bags? This valiant effort may really only be a cortisone shot. Everyone gets to feel warm and fuzzy, then we all head home to our water-saving showerheads, CFL’s, and solar panels. The food will be stowed away in an “Energy Star” eco-fridge and then eaten with bamboo utensils on plates made of recycled glass. We are allowed to have our cake and eat it too - the harmony of a comfortable life and the mental serenity of knowing we “lived green today”. We rave about helping each other out and living in community and so forth, yet none of us has to do the actual work of providing the nourishment.

Well, the people standing behind that booth at the Farmer’s Market aren’t exactly growing younger. The average age of farmers in the United States is 60 and only 1-1.5% (depending on the source) of the United States has chosen the agrarian livelihood. Unless they have magically transported themselves from the world of Tuck Everlasting then that green cake might not be around too much longer. A colleague and young vegetable farmer, Zoe Bradbury, recently wrote a dynamite piece for The Grist that addresses this issue from a different angle - oil.

Why is it then that no one wants to live the glorious agrarian life and “return to the land”? Wasn’t the revolution ignited by the idealistic hippies of the 1960’s supposed to catapult us back into this harmonious agrarian life? Having interviewed those who lived and breathed the communal lifestyle, things didn’t work out so swell for a variety of reasons. Who really wanted to milk the goats or make yogurt or weed the garden or can the beets when there was F-U-N to be had? Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll seemed to edge out self-sufficiency and never relinquished its edge.

In a sense, the situation has not truly changed. We prefer our cush “8-5’s”, weekends, sick leave, vacation, health insurance, and general predictability. None of that really exists when one “goes back to the land”. Perhaps this is why no one wants to farm any more. When one dares to sustainably farm on a small-scale (be it livestock or vegetable), they invite an entire platter of unpredictability into his or her life. Predators (owls and coyotes), pests/insects, weather (consider the current flooding in Iowa and Wisconsin), equipment breakdown/damage (a freezer breakdown with meat in it may wipe out one fourth of a farmer’s expected profit for a year), the market (who will pay for the pricey goods on a consistent basis?), and all other “X” Factors. An example of an “X” factor would read as follows: a torrential downpour comes and you are repairing the sheep fencing on your farthest pasture but before you can get to your baby chicks (several acres away) to put them back into the brooder house to keep warm, 10 of them have been suffocated to death as they were clamoring to find warm space. That’s an approximate loss of $43.06 (assuming current feed and energy prices) and a whole heap of guilt for not fulfilling your duty as part of your role in animal husbandry . Throw in the current array of farm policy that basically says to my generation, “Go big (i.e. corporate) or go home” and you have the ideal formula for extinguishing the small-scale, sustainable American farmer.

Small-scale, sustainable farming needs our help and this means going far beyond buying local. We all play important roles, however big or small, in this movement. We do need a massive influx of young and energetic people into the world of small-scale, sustainable farming but that most certainly does not exclude everyone one else from participating in other vital roles. It is absolutely essential to push boundaries in public policy right now that lure young Americans into the unpredictable, yet fulfilling agrarian life of a small-scale producer of food. The allurement of a self-sufficient, unpredictable lifestyle only sounds like an oxymoron until you experience it for yourself. Where are the gentle (or even forceful) nudges that say to young Americans, “Come make a living growing good, clean, and healthy food for your fellow man while saving the planet and being self-sufficient!” Unless these nudges (from government, the media, and the general public) are imminent, then we’ll be driving our hybrids to the local “big box” to procure a delectable selection of produce and meats shipped from somewhere and grown somehow by somebody.


Anonymous said...

To make farming attractive as a profession,what is needed is an economically viable sustainable farming system that can be deployed easily and inexpensively. That is the concept behind SPIN-Farming. Developed by Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich, SPIN is a franchise-ready farming system that makes it possible to earn significant income from growing vegetables on land bases under an acre in size. SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets. SPIN's farming techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you'd expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn't any different from McDonalds. By offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them, and it removes the two big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and significant start-up capital. This is not subsistence farming. This is recasting farming as a small business in cities and towns, "right sizing" agriculture for an urbanized century and making local food production a viable business proposition once again.

Adrienne said...

Roxanne's comment above about SPIN farming sounds like a great plan for creating a new generation of farmers. For those of us who do not desire to become a full fledged farmer, we can spread our roots and desire to be local and organic by having a self supporting garden.

Everytime I drive through the suburbs and look at the massive lots using tons of water to make sure their grass is as green or greener than their neighbors I get depressed thinking about all the food that could be produced there. Don't get me wrong, I love a yard to play in, but we must have food in order to play!

Sustainability goes past bamboo flooring and a recycling container. We have to re-evaluate how we live and lawns are a part of that.

There is a whole movement out there to turn the wasted lawn into bountiful gardens. It is called Food Not Lawns.

Check it out: